Tony Tulathimutte’s debut novel may be called “Private Citizens,” but his narrative approach gives his primary characters very little privacy. Rather, the graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop takes us deep inside the heads of his characters, laying bare their basest insecurities and the everyday contradictions that threaten to upend their lives.
It’s late 2007, and four friends — Cory, Will, Henrik and Linda — are attempting to find their individual and collective way post-college in San Francisco. Cory is struggling to make a difference in non-profit work. Will is attempting to live up to his girlfriend’s increasingly demanding expectations. Henrik is in danger of losing his way entirely after his research job evaporates.
Linda, a woman with a taste for drama, unpredictability and cruelty in her personal life, is a writer — o r at least aspires to be one. Tulathimutte leverages this fact to create passages in which Linda and Henrik (himself a depressed and philosophical fellow always seeking the most moral position even if he must chase it down a rabbit hole) argue about the powers and uses of narrative. In effect, the book adopts a critical stance about itself.
This bit of meta-ness will delight some readers (including this reviewer) and frustrate others. Readers may have similarly split reactions to Tulathimutte’s impressive vocabulary, which the author exploits to the fullest. I highly recommend keeping a dictionary handy.
The novel’s ending provides another love-it-or-hate-it moment. Tulathimutte is no sentimentalist, so the book’s final passages, while bringing the friends together (at least temporarily), are hardly alight with hope. Still, Linda and Henrik do tentatively seek a better future by rather literally rewriting the past.
Though Tulathimutte has never read Douglas Coupland’s “Generation X,” “Private Citizens” sizzles with the sort of generation-defining energy that Coupland’s novel possessed. Whether it resonates with millennial readers in the same way Coupland’s book did with Xers remains to be seen.
What: Tony Tulathimutte reads from “Private Citizens”
Where: Prairie Lights Books, 15 S. Dubuque St., Iowa City
When: 7 p.m. Thursday