book review

Francesco Pacifico’s Sharp New Novel Class Takes on Post-Hipster Williamsburg

For all the moaning about Brooklyn novelists over the past two decades, there’ve been very few novels set in Williamsburg. As if following a Paul Auster homing beacon or reading Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters as an instruction manual, most Brooklyn novelists have settled in South Brooklyn and set their books somewhere in the orbit of Prospect Park. The narrator of Ben Lerner’s 10:04 works at the Park Slope Food Coop and walks to Brooklyn Bridge Park after his shift and sheds a tear (“a mild lacrimal event”) looking across at Manhattan. Colson Whitehead wrote the quintessential set piece treating a late-night trip to a Fort Greene bodega in John Henry Days. We know from Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn that most of the barflies at the Brooklyn Inn circa 1999 were somebody’s assistant. To tell by Adelle Waldman’s The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., many residents of Clinton Hill live their lives as if it were the 19th century with better appliances. Though there have been fads for narrators with neurological disorders or doubled selves and minor outbreaks of magic realism in recent years, realism, refinement, old brownstones, and hardwood floors are the hallmarks of these books. They play by the rules and, at their worst, read as if they were written to pay the rent.

That can’t be said of the novels of Tao Lin: His Taipei is as good a novel of post-gentrification, post-Xanax, molly-addled Williamsburg as we have. (The recent standout pre-gentrification novel is Jacqueline Woodson’s Another Brooklyn.) But Lin’s novels aren’t wide-angle affairs. His narrators occasionally give voice to acid expressions of fellow feeling (“we are the fucked generation,” a character in Shoplifting From American Apparel writes into a chat box), and they’re defined by their alienation. They aren’t creatures of a milieu. They’re locked inside themselves.

So maybe it makes sense that the novel to take on the Williamsburg of high-rises and clapboard houses, just-finished condominiums, and Bedford Avenue boutiques — the hipster dreamland — should be written by a foreigner. Francesco Pacifico’s Class does a lot of things you don’t see American novels do much of these days. It’s a sex farce: The fucking is de rigueur, there’s a lot of it, and it’s treated the same way as breakfast, which often is the thing that comes next. There’s a lot of explicit discussion of money, with fees for magazine pieces, prices of plane tickets, bank deposits received from parents, and windfalls of inherited wealth quantified in euros. Lifestyle details are catalogued as if they were points of pride: I don’t know of an American novelist who’d bother saying that their characters go to Film Forum too much. There are scenes at an n+1 party and at a party at Gary Shteyngart’s house — that’s usually not done. Mixed in with those details are a few that ring false. I lived in Williamsburg for a couple of years, and I’ve never heard any Americans or any foreign transplants refer to the neighborhood as “Willy.” The Burg, yes. Billyburg, yes. But Willy?

That’s what Ludovica calls it. She’s one of the set of rich Italians who’ve come to New York to follow their dreams, or as Daria, the narrator of most of the novel, would put it, seek “personal fulfillment.” Daria wouldn’t call them rich or middle class, either; her preferred term is “bourgeoisie.” She works as a travel agent in Rome, writes reviews for a communist newspaper at night, and vacations in New York to take molly and take lovers. Ludovica has a lousy job moderating viral-marketing chat rooms in Italian for campaigns that don’t seem to have much viral potential. She’s come to Brooklyn with her husband, Lorenzo, an aspiring filmmaker on a philosophy fellowship at Columbia. He’s made one short film, a catalogue of clichés starring Ludovica as La Sposina, “the pretty little bride.” Everybody knows it’s no good, that Lorenzo’s 34 and unlikely ever to make a movie, but somebody’s told him Wes Anderson might hire him as his assistant director (ha-ha — not a joke an American would commit to — it’s too pathetic and too real), and he hasn’t given up hope: He’s one of those. Ludovica has given up. When the novel begins, she’s already ready to go back to Rome. There’s nothing more Brooklyn, after all, than thinking about leaving it.

Pacifico — who wrote the book in Italian in 2014, then translated it himself (with Mark Krotov) into English — breaks a lot of dearly held rules of point of view and narration in a way that would be called experimental if an American did it. You could also call it sloppy, which it is by design. His style is a form of gossip. Daria narrates from inside the heads of Ludovica and several male characters, most of whom she’s slept with, two of whom she met as a teenager at summer camp. She knows and tells of things she couldn’t have heard or seen, often spiked by parenthetical asides from her own life and firsthand knowledge of the characters. Toward the end of the book, the narration roves in a way that strikes me as a form of showing off. The plot of the book, about Ludovica’s and Lorenzo’s infidelities, recedes, and the ending that comes before the coda veers into surrealism, putting a couple of characters in hospital beds. It’s unsatisfying in two ways most of the novel is very satisfying. It isn’t funny, and it suggests the sort of redemption that the rest of the book rejects explicitly.

The only significant American character in Class is a novelist named James Murphy, who’s said to have ridden the David Foster Wallace–Jonathan Franzen wave to the best-seller lists. That he’s named after the leader of LCD Soundsystem is probably a nod to Tao Lin’s Richard Yates, with its doomed couple Haley Joel Osment and Dakota Fanning, and a joke about the aging hipster who’s losing his edge. Aside from being somebody for Daria to have a fling with and a celebrity pal for her friend Nico to write home about, Murphy is present for Pacifico to embed a sharp critique of the American novel. Daria says of their affair:

He can’t understand what’s happening to us. James is the champion of literary empathy; these modern Americans are so good at making the reader feel human — they think literature connects us all. They became important under George W. Bush, these writers, emerging as an antidote to his regime, so now they feel obligated to provide a model of absolute virtue at all times to suppress every individual interest, to avoid every class vice. Thus they convince themselves and their readers they have no class vices at all, even as they get big grants from billionaires who indulge them with one hand and take from the poor with the other.

Take that, recipients of the MacArthur “genius” grant! Or as Nico tells James: “You never let your characters just fuck. You never have them enjoy it and just leave it at that. There’s a conflict or anxiety or regret every fucking time! It’s like you don’t know that there’s actual pleasure in the world. It’s really puritanical.”

*This article appears in the June 12, 2017, issue of New York Magazine.

Review: Francesco Pacifico’s Sharp New Novel Class