This was an excitingly unusual reading experience. It didn’t feel like any other book, partly because it handled its subject matter in an unexpected way.
Jonathan Dee’s The Privileges is about a young couple who become very rich—and their children. It’s about privilege, and has what you expect: townhouses and country houses, driver’s services and private jets, all those things, but it is neither soapy “wealth porn”, nor social satire. For a start the novel’s characters have inner lives–mysterious inner lives. And although one of the characters makes his fortune from insider-trading and is kind of without scruples—except personally, as a husband and father—he isn’t portrayed as a gouging brute. There’s a sense that his interactions with people outside the family’s tiny tribe are still driven by good taste and common politeness, if not by fellow feeling or a sense of social obligation. Later in the novel one of the things that the couple, Adam and Cynthia Morey, do is to become very active in charities. The novel doesn’t dwell on the character of this work, either what exactly these patrons do, or how they feel about it, apart from conveying a nebulous, self-respecting notion of giving something back. The Morey’s involvement in charities is touched on rather than worked up, but the reader is to take note. We’re invited to remember that in fact, there are plenty of people in the world who make fortunes because they are advantageously placed to do so, or because they can further consolidate wealth that they’ve inherited. And that those people are, quite often, the people sitting on the boards of charitable foundations and trusts, and what’s remarkable about the way the book handles this is that it makes it seem unremarkable. The novel quietly shows what money can get you—the scope of a life, private and public—with wealth. And it also shows what money can’t get you, but again, it doesn’t do it pointedly. This story isn’t punitive—it doesn’t show you people appalled by the failure of their ability to buy their way out of trouble. The novel just goes deep into these people’s lives, their situations, their ideas about themselves, and then follows them on to the inevitable events, like losing people to old-age and illness—all the nonnegotiable stuff of life.
The Privileges feels very real and very different. It may be another novel about the rich (an American subject) and that sense of building a fortress of capital in order to get a life of infinite possibility. That’s part of the plot of The Great Gatsby, right? But it is as if The Privileges hasn’t read The Great Gatsby. (Though of course Dee will have). It’s as if the book has come down from Henry James and Edith Wharton, in whose books you often have all these people with money and great privilege, and dilemmas about how to live with those things—how to live even with those things. Dee’s book has to imagine these rich people fully, as thinking and feeling people, in order for their failures of imagination to mean anything.
Anyway, The Privileges was another of those books that brought home to me forcibly that one of the things that makes literature literature—apart from the quality of writing—is world view. Now, when I say “world view” you aren’t to imagine I mean a political take on human life and society. I mean world view in that the writer knows and understands, to the point that they’ve forgotten, that the business of fiction is to create a kind of artifact made of reported thoughts and feelings and sensations—thoughtfully, feelingly, and sensually reported (which is where that “quality of the writing” comes in). But a report where the sense of “a report” is absent. Reported thoughts, feelings, and sensations that give us a persuasive impression of what it’s like to be alive. Now, of course we all know what it feels like to be alive (in fact by definition that is all we know). But what I mean is that a really good novel will crystallize for us someone else’s sensibility of what it feels like to be alive. And the books that work in this way do so because of their author’s world view. Because their author has a world view that is cohesive, and consistent, and particular.
So, there are books that show us the truth about times, the truth about what it’s like to be in love, to feel jealous, to be ill, to find ourselves constrained, to be ashamed—any of the great human experiences. But it’s not as if any one work can do that. The thing is—there are so many of them. There are so many true, particular world views produced by people who are writing literature (literature as opposed to Literary Fiction which often only just walks around in literature’s clothes). And what makes each work true is its particularity. We read Jude the Obscure, and go “that’s true,” and we read the poetry of Hesiod and say, “That’s true,” and we read The Great Gatsby and say “that’s true”, and we read The Privileges and say “that’s true”. There are so many books we read and say, “That’s true”—even the ones that are in some way deeply artificial and mannered, because the vibe of being alive makes us stop seeing the artifice once we’re immersed. Take for instance Raymond Chandler, and his Marlowe . We know what Marlowe is like, we know what he believes, we know when push comes to shove what he’s going to do and why, and we know what his mean streets are like. And Marlowe’s world seems to be a real world—but we are not going to find it anywhere. There’s that too—the realities we are not going to find anywhere because they’re only in books. Realities refined by particular writers until what you have left of them when they’re gone—the writers—is their view of life reproduced with such vitality that it is also alive.