'The Privileges': Criminality and charity among the super-rich
A review of Jonathan Dee's novel "The Privileges" — the story of an affluent, amoral man and wife who are fiercely loyal to one another, yet oddly estranged from the world they inhabit.
Special to The Seattle Times
by Jonathan Dee
Random House, 258 pp., $25
Jonathan Dee is a writer who, in the past, has blended social critique and psychological drama in maverick ways.
His 2002 novel, "Palladio," examined how the media saturation of America affects our desires, ambitions, self-confidence and perceptions. "St. Famous" (1996) did something similar with news celebrity, as it portrayed an aspiring novelist who has no interest in writing the story that publishers and movie producers are falling all over him to produce: his tale of being beaten and held hostage during a race riot. Why, he wonders, aren't they interested in publishing his quiet autobiographical novel instead?
"The Privileges," Dee's fifth book, again blends social commentary with psychological exploration — this time, of family dynamics in the New York mega-wealth set. It's a curious, baffling book. Instead of being a vivid immersion in the hothouse worlds that money can produce (look to Irene Handl's "The Sioux" or Christina Stead's "House of All Nations" for that), it delivers an oddly flat impression of extravagance, criminality, charity activity and teenage drug binges.
The flatness seems to be deliberate, with the power couple at the center of the book, Adam and Cythia Morey, existing in a contextual vacuum of their own making.
"One of the things that made the two of them so great together," Adam feels, "was that shared talent for leaving their baggage behind."
Their daughter sees the same fact a little differently: "April felt as if her family came from nowhere, and, more puzzling, that this suited her parents just fine."
The novel skips through time, settling on key moments in the Moreys' life: their early marriage, where their alienation from their families becomes apparent; Adam's career as a hedge-funds golden boy and his covert creation of a highly remunerative insider-trading network; Cynthia's discouragement at having "nothing vital to do" and her husband's subsequent founding of a charity for her to run, to lift her out of her depression; and, finally, their son and daughter's disorientation, manifested in opposite ways, at being part of a family so rich it's a household name.
The blinkered, amoral Moreys are fiercely loyal to one another, yet oddly estranged from the world they inhabit — and even from time itself.
"It's not as though I can't remember," Adam feels, "it's just that there's nothing constructive about remembering."
This atrophying of their connections with anyone but each other, spiced lightly with their cool acceptance of Adam's risky financial shenanigans, is almost their sole trait. As such, they feel more like constructs, or even ciphers, than characters.
Dee has a gifted essayist's way with a phrase, and there's some humor here. Still, it's as if he doesn't quite have a full grasp of the milieu he's portraying, and still less idea of what he wants to say about it. His seeming indifference toward the characters and world he has created leaves the reader feeling indifferent too.
Michael Upchurch is The Seattle Times arts writer: email@example.com
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