by Jonathan Dee
Random House, 2010, 272 pp., $25
AFTER THE fall of 2008, when the American economy revealed itself to have been a particularly elaborate house of cards, after the astonishment and the rage and the losses still to be reckoned, those of us who hadn’t lost too much—or whose unemployment at least offered time for reading in libraries not yet closed by state budget cuts—could search for novels about the very financial elites whose bubble-blowing actions proved so destructive to everyone but themselves. Who were these barbarians, no longer at the gate, but entrenched firmly in our midst? In what ways were these architects of our doom people just like us, but with more money; in what ways were they very different? Is there anything to be learned from such retrospective explorations of the inner lives of America’s latest aristocracy? For the 99 percent of us who live on the wrong side of America’s ever-widening income divide, inquiries into the moral and emotional lives of the I-bankers seem almost the height of poor taste, a bad joke on par with the taxpayer-funded bailout of banks that remain in private hands. A conscientious novelist invariably humanizes the characters created, yet it seems a perversion of justice for readers to extend, interest free, the credit of our compassion to the types of people who spend so much of their own emotional capital reducing the rest of us to the collateral of their speculative fantasies.
The challenge to readers to experience sympathy for those apparently lacking in ordinary compassion animates Jonathan Dee’s The Privileges. Dee’s novel traces the fortunes of a young couple, Adam and Cynthia Morey, “Cyn,” as Adam calls her, from their wedding day to their children’s first year of college, a twenty-year period from roughly 1989 to 2009, although Dee has carefully scrubbed it of any notable temporal markers. No presidents or laws are mentioned; two large buildings do not go down in a terrorist attack. Such scrupulous lack of historical consciousness may be taken as one sign of the Moreys’ general indifference to society, as Margaret Thatcher used the word. It also means that a flag of light allegory flutters around the novel and its principal characters—Morey as in slippery predatory eel, the people with more, a pair of exemplary primal lovers for our time (social mores meets that’s amore). Word associations aside, these Moreys are mostly ordinary—he’s the child of a unionized Boston pipefitter, her mother remarried a Pittsburgh lawyer after her father ran off. The stepfather pays for her wedding, even though Cynthia mostly refuses to talk to him. What sets them apart is their vigorously lasting marriage, a rare enough thing in American letters after John Updike and Philip Roth, and rare enough in American life. They attract others to better proclaim their faith: “This, losers, is my husband. His dick is bigger t...
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