Regular readers may have noticed I have a weakness for novels which follow a handful of young people from the time they first become acquainted through the first few years of adult life. Lots of space for character development which is what attracted me to Tony Tulathimutte’s Private Citizens. Smart, funny and sometimes exhausting, it follows four Stanford graduates through 2008, with occasional flashbacks to their college days.
We’re introduced to Linda, Cory, Will and Henrik on a day out from San Francisco that no one seems to be enjoying. Linda’s back from a drug-fueled couple of years in New York with no place to stay; Cory works for an event organiser with a social conscience and spends most of her energy trying to do the right thing; Will’s stinking rich having taken the IT route, constantly on the alert for possible racist jibes at his Asian ethnicity, and Henrik seems to be struggling to stay awake. Linda and Henrik were involved in a relationship as students which defines dysfunctional. She’s a pathological liar and waspish with it while he’s bipolar with the kind of peripatetic background which makes him long for stability. Over the course of Tulathimutte’s novel Will becomes so enamoured with the gorgeous Vanya that he makes a shocking and tragic sacrifice, Cory dips her toe into the corporate world by accident, Linda turns to the most unlikely way of supporting herself and Henrik tumbles into a breakdown. Throughout it all Tulathimutte hurls barbs at a multitude of noughties tropes, from hipsters to social networking, motivational speakers to rapacious capitalism disguised as cuddly new ageism.
Tulathimutte’s novel is often very funny but don’t expect much in the way of joy. He has a nice line in jaded observations – ‘Days like this you have to have fun or you’ll hate yourself when you’re older’; Roopa was rigid, the way free spirits often were’; ‘San Francisco, this little ukele-strumming cuddle party’ are a tiny sample – and his characters are drawn with a scalpel. Just as I felt I’d met many of Linda Grant’s characters in Upstairs at the Party, I’m sure Tulathimutte’s will seem all too familiar to Millennials. His quartet lurches from crisis to crisis with only Henrik, perhaps the sketchiest of the four, engaging much in the way of a sympathy. It’s a clever piece of social satire but a little too long for me – all that razor-sharp social dissection can feel a bit relentless after a while. That said, it’s an impressive first novel and it’ll be interesting to see what Tulathimutte chooses to take a swipe at next.