Jonathan Dee: The Privileges – A feast of narrative subtleties

A classic narrative about a financial tycoon and his family’s Vogue-worthy life, with the fine observations with which Dee endeared himself with his readers in Palladio, The Privileges is conventional in its style, but so unnervingly unconventional in terms of the most important building block of a novel or in our case, the lack thereof: those neatly tied moral bows that make a book what we call a satisfying read. This is also a recurring criticism against this book, which, however, has not outshined its virtues in my reading experience.

It begins with an acclaimed first chapter that captures with lens-perfect clarity the wedding of Adam and Cynthia, panning the scene through the incredibly effective use of present tense. It is only the wedding that is described thus, suggesting that lovely timelessness all young people dream about. As soon as the postnuptial period of their life starts, the narrative shifts to the more common past tense, to show that the timelessness has ceased and given way to less spectacular experiences, the couple have fallen back to earth, which is under the rule of temporality.

The characters make a point of creating something new. Their story has no past, we never get to see what they were like without or before each other. On a side note, this is realistic (and a positive thing, I must add): indeed those whose marry young and grow up together, will have their personalities shaped by their mutual experiences, unlike the late-age marriers who bring their well-formed and often rock solid personalities in the marriage.

All is not perfect in their wonderland: Cynthia will go through the usual mind-changing experiences of motherhood: All the energy and heedlessness and faith in herself that he had always adored had lost its outlet and so that faith had backed up, as it were, into the lives of the children. Adam is slowly pushing his luck, not even trying to find his limits, but rather being well aware of them and playing with them for the sheer pleasure of risk both in his professional life (insider trading) and his personal one (a memorable scene where he asks for the phone number of a bartendress only to wash it off his hands as soon as he leaves the room).

Even though they declare themselves to be the headwaters of a new dynasty, it is questionable whether they succeed in creating their own brand. What we see is a closed-loop micro-community: Cynthia looks sarcastically at all attempts at connection of her own family, and albeit a philanthropist and warm-hearted person by all accounts (the narrator’s, the husband’s, the daughter’s), almost all of her actual words are cynical and rather unkind. The absence of long-term memory they boast also surfaces in their children. Childishly, Jonas is thrilled when his artistic discovery is not something that was on his professor’s radar.

Initially I considered the art history digression to be the book’s major weakness, as it seemed to serve no other purpose than flaunt the author’s knowledge or ideas. By comparison, Dee almost inexcusably omits to plumb the arcana of financial derivatives, as would have been fit for an author often compared to Franzen. But at a deeper look, the outsider-art detour delights us with its extraordinary figurative quality: as presented here, it is a perfect metaphor that captures the very essence of what this family is like: a self-sufficient world with its own affective ecosystem, which engenders creations that are splendid for the eye, but so impenetrable by the mind and soul. In plain terms: something we admire, but we have no idea what to do with.

Following a spectacular first chapter, an intriguing second chapter, and a stagnating third one, in the fourth and final chapter we do get something that resembles closure for the reader, as each of these four incredibles seeks attachment in the more traditional sense: April taking refuge in her mother, Jonas finally succumbing to the security his family’s wealth offers, Cynthia reaching out to her dying father, and Adam immersing himself in matrimonial peace.

These subtleties and the utter aesthetic pleasure make this a memorable read.

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