JOURNAL OF A COMPULSIVE READER
By Charles Matthews

Thursday, December 2, 2010

3. The Privileges, by Jonathan Dee, pp. 107-172

The Privileges: A Novel3.
_____
About seven years have passed and the children are now teenagers. The family now spends Christmas and spring break in Anguilla, and have been doing so for four years so that Adam can launder cash from his investor-trading scheme, though Cynthia, April and Jonas have no idea that this is the reason. Two years ago they moved into "a penthouse duplex that looked directly down onto the planetarium behind the Museum of Natural History" after Cynthia tired of "the place on East End she'd loved so much when they bought it." In the new place, April and Jonas have the lower floor "mostly to themselves; it had a separate entrance, which meant she had less of a sense of their comings and goings than she used to."

The watch-stealing kid whom Adam enlisted in his scheme is named Devon. He lives in an apartment with has "a couch and a flat-screen TV that were both huge and expensive, and a rug that was huge and not expensive, and that was it." He spends his spare time watching an exhibitionist named Kasey on her Webcam, and when he discovers a bottle of pear vodka in the freezer and "half a bag of a salt-and-vinegar potato chips" in the kitchen cabinet, he has dinner. He communicates with Adam when need be by disposable cell phone. His attitude toward Adam is that
It was like high school all over with that guy. He was one of those alphas, master of every situation, receiver of every gift, one of those guys you made merciless fun of until the day he actually brought you inside the circle and then you turned into a simpering little bitch.
They have brought others into the scheme in order to spread out the transactions, but Devon has never grown comfortable with what Adam has gotten him into. "It was all that paranoia about being watched that was making him feel sick all the time. He bet the rest of them felt sick too."

Adam is unchanged. He is still Sanford's golden boy and heir apparent. Almost everyone else who once worked at Perini has moved on, and most of the employees of the firm "were younger than Adam now, but he could still outrun them and outlift them and outdrink them." He goes out to a bar with them where they flirt with the "provocatively tattooed" waitress named Gretchen, who "was enough of a pro, Adam saw, not to let her contempt for these guys show." When he leaves them to go home, "prompting a wave of questions about the staunchness of his heterosexuality," he goes to the kitchen, finds Gretchen, flirts with her, and gets her to write her phone number on his hand. But after he leaves, he washes the phone number off in a playground drinking foutain without memorizing it or even looking at it.
It wasn't the first time he'd done something like this. He'd never cheated on Cynthia and never would, because that would be weak and stupid, and the risk so much greater than the reward. But sometimes there was a thrill in walking right up to that line, and in charming the other person into stepping over it. He figured it was all downhill after that moment anyway.
Nor does he clue the other men at the table into what he has done. It's all done to prove to himself his mastery, but then so is the insider-trading scheme: "He could have ended the whole scheme at any time and, in terms of their daily lives, they very likely wouldn't feel the money's absence at all. But it wasn't just about the money in any case ... it was about exercising that ability to repurpose information those around him were too timid or shortsighted to know what to do with." He knows it's illegal and there are consequence if he get caught, but he rationalizes that away:
In the rare moments when he stepped back and thought about it at all, it was vital to Adam's conception of his professional life that he wasn't stealing from anybody. There was nothing zero-sum about the world of capital investment: you created wealth where there was no wealth before, and if you did it well enough there was no end to it. What Adam did was just an initiative based on that idea, an unusually bold manifestation of it.
April has a friend, Robin, who spends much of her time at their home, in large part because Cynthia has discovered that Robin is being physically abused. It is Cynthia, not Robin, who tells April about the abuse, which shocks April because "she had heard that rumor before and thought that it was bullshit, that that kind of thing didn't really happen to anyone she knew." She is also "disappointed and confused that Robin ... had been moved to confess all this to her mother but not to her."

One night Robin's father shows up to demand that Robin come home with him, but Cynthia faces him down. He is a partner in a prominent law firm and he tries to intimidate Cynthia: "'I recognize you,' he said to Cynthia. 'All the parents talk about you. You like to play at being one of the girls. You're the youngest mother there and yet the one least able to deal with getting old.'" But Cynthia stands her ground, and when the father threatens to call the police replies that she has taken pictures of the cuts and bruises on Robin's body. He doesn't follow up on the threat.

"The story was all over Dalton the next day. Robin and Jonas weren't talking about it, but April had probably mentioned it to a few people. It bolstered the already considerable perception that April's parents were the coolest parents on earth." But when Robin eventually returns home, Cynthia is upset. Robin has been one of Cynthia's causes -- she already spends much of her time working for charitable groups dealing with social issues. "More than once April came home from school and found her mother sitting at the dining room table with a cup of coffee, crying." But other girls sought out Cynthia's companionship and advice, talking to her about things they wouldn't talk about to their own mothers. "The fact that all the other Dalton mothers hated and mocked her only bolstered Cynthia's cred."

One night in the spring April goes to a party thrown at a townhouse in the East Fifties by a girl she didn't really know, who was home on break from the prep school she attended. "The townhouse itself was phenomenal, a real old-money museum, and its trashing had a terrible inevitability." She meets Robin there, who "hugged her for a good thirty seconds, which told April it was X." When Cynthia calls April on her cell, Robin talks about how cool April's mom is and "some random guy" who has seen Cynthia's picture in a magazine calls her "A total babe." April drinks some beer and some vodka and finds herself making out with a boy named Tom. When they go in search of some privacy, they open a door and find a man sitting at a desk: "He spun slowly in his swivel chair, like the mother's corpse in Psycho, April thought, only this guy was wearing a cardigan and reasing The Wall Street Journal.... Oh my God, April thought, you live here! ... He had to be the father of the girl throwing the party. This had to be his own home they were tearing apart downstairs." April ends up giving Tom a blowjob -- "It was the quickest way to bring the whole thing to a close ... and it was also the best way to keep his hands and mouth from going anywhere she didn't want them to go." Then she takes a cab home and watches A River Runs Through It with her mother.
Some people were in such a hurry to pretend they didn't need their mothers anymore, like they couldn't wait to leave behind the things that were great about being a kid in the first place, the things they still liked but for some reason thought it was important to feel ashamed at liking. She didn't understand those people at all.
Adam's brother, Conrad, and his wife, Paige, come to visit when he's in town. Conrad is a staff writer for a TV drama about high school students in Hawaii, and Paige is a production designer. "Twelve years younger than Conrad, she felt intimidated and rudely excluded by any conversation that referenced the years before he met her, when she was just a child; she also had a suspicion that Cynthia did not like her, which was entirely correct." Conrad is impressed with his brother's success: "Who knew there was such good money in being a master of the universe?" When Paige suggests that Conrad should "get into the family business," Adam says, "Always room for you, Fredo." They laugh, "Paige a little less heartily, because she didn't know who Fredo was."

Conrad tells Adam and Cynthia "this place looks like a set. And so do the people in it. I mean, no joke, we spend weeks in casting trying to find kids who look exactly like April and Jonas." And to Adam he says, "Seriously, what kind of Faustian shit is going on around here? You literally do not look a day older than you did in college." When Adam gets a call from Devon ("which was not something that was supposed to happen") and goes to answer it, and Conrad goes to the bathroom, Cynthia and Paige are left alone. When Paige aimlessly remarks, "You have a beautiful family," Cynthia comment that it's "what people start saying to you when you get a little older yourself.... You notice I don't get any of those remarks about how I don't look any different than I did twenty years ago."
It was an old story, how time favored men over women, but in Adam's case, Cynthia thought, it was just as Conrad had said: he wasn't growing more distinguished as he aged -- it was more like he wasn't aging at all. .... He spent too much time in the office, he didn't sleep enough, but whatever toll all this might have been exacting, none of it showed in his face. And if you pointed this out to him, he didn't even understand what you were talking about.
Adam goes for a run, during which he meets Devon as arranged in Central Park. Devon informs him that "Miguel is out." Adam says, "No names, please," but Devon continues, informing him that "One of my associates has told me he's out. The one who works at Schwab. He's getting married. He says he's made enough and doesn't want this hanging over his head anymore." Adam is annoyed that Devon should have broken protocol for what doesn't seem to him to be an emergency. Devon confesses that he, too, is "wondering if it's time to get out.... Don't you think about this stuff?" Adam admits to himself that he has "thought about it, not because he was prone to fear or paranoia but just as a matter of risk management." Devon, he thinks, doesn't have as much to worry about as he does, because any of them, "Devon included, who slipped up and got caught could always save himself by giving up the top of the chain, and the top of the chain was Adam."
"You say you want to be smart about it," he said, looking into Devon's eyes. "But to say that we can't be successful today because we were successful yesterday -- that's not smart, that's just superstitious. You start giving in to ideas about luck or fate or karma or whatever and you're fucked. There's no fate. Everything that you and I have made happen in these last however many years? It never happened. It's gone. It doesn't exist. The only thing that exists, the only risk to be analyzed, is what's in front of us today."
And that denial of the past, that attempt to live in the present, without history, is what energizes both Adam and Cynthia, as we'll see. And it causes anxiety in April -- who was driven to make up stuff about her family -- and Jonas -- who turns against the music of the present in search of something more authentic. It's also the source of much of Devon's anxiety: "The money is almost like a burden because I'm so paranoid about spending it. And how can you not look back? I don't get that.... I know that you are one of those guys, those guys who are missing a part of their brain or something. No conscience. No memory for losses. So you don't need this."

Adam is a little stung by the accusation that he has no conscience. In his rationale he has done it all for his family, for "a life in which literally anything is possible," and taking on this risk "was the noblest thing he had ever done in his life. It was humility, really, that made him so uncomfortable reminiscing about it." He tells Devon, "You are Superman. You are a fucking gangster. The day we go back to feeling safe from risk is the day you can no longer look at [the others in his office] and say to yourself that there's any there's any difference between them and you.... I don't want to get all mystical on you, but this is the only life we get, and either you leave your mark on it or it's like you were never here."

After leaving Devon, Adam has to fly to Minneapolis with Sanford. And on the flight Sanford reveals his view of Adam, which is not exactly the one Adam has of himself: "You're an old-school guy, a throwback in a lot of ways. Put your head down, do your job, respect the traditions, and everybody gets rich enough in the end.... I can't tell you what a comfort it is to me now." Sanford is unaware how this comfort is about to evaporate.

Jonas is obsessed with music, but in his own way: "There was something sort of priestly about him when it came to music, and as with most priests, some people respected his outlook and some people just found the whole attitude a bit much." Especially girls. He and some other boys have formed a band, but he is the only one who really practices, so they're not very good. They spend much of their time trying to find a name. "Haskell, their singer, thought some preemptive irony was in order and wanted them to call themselves The Privileged, or The Privileges. The notion of preemptive irony made Jonas want to kill himself." He proposes "The Headwaters, like a kind of quest for the source rather than just some bar band-style aping of that month's Top 40," but it's too close to "The Headwaiters." Alex, the drummer, who is taking a 20th-century history course, comes up with Run Bobby Run.

Eventually, Jonas's campaign for authenticity brings him into a clash with Haskell, who calls him a "self-hating son of a zillionaire" and a "condescending hypocrite poser" and tells him, "Grab your fucking Gibson and back me up on some songs about getting drunk and laid because when we are through here I am going to get both of those things. Authentic enough for you?" Still, for Christmas he tells his parents "he wanted all twelve volumes of the Alan Lomax Library of Congress recordings, on vinyl, and since they didn't have the first idea how to acquire such a thing, he bought it himself online and put it on their credit card.... The forties, the thirties, the twenties: that, he kept thinking, was the time to be alive."

Cynthia's stepfather, Warren, dies of lung cancer, and she and Adam take April and Jonas with her to Pittsburgh for the funeral. The children meet their cousins, the five-year-old twin sons of Deborah, who now teaches art history at Boston University and is married to one of her colleagues. Back at her mother's house after the funeral, Cynthia is surprised to find Deborah and Jonas deep in conversation about Andy Warhol. Deborah proposes that they visit the Warhol Museum before Jonas and his father and sister fly back to New York the next day. Jonas's enthusiasm surprises her: "Unless Andy Warhol played the fucking banjo, Cynthia thought, she would not have guessed that Jonas knew or cared who he was.... Andy Warhol, she thought suddenly. It's one thing to fall for that bullshit as a high-school student, but imagine devoting your whole life to it."

After the rest of the family leaves for home, Cynthia stays on for a few days more, along with Deborah. They discuss what will happen to Ruth, who is sixty-seven, and intends to stay on in Pittsburgh by herself. Deborah tells Cynthia that her father "always had a soft spot for you." And that "It hurt him that you didn't think of him as a parent." But Cynthia refuses, like Adam, to dwell in the past:
You started taking on other people's grievances and there was no end to it. She was nobody's sister, and neither was Deborah. It was one thing to conspire about the future but there was no way she was going back into the past.

"I already have a father," she said. 
Perhaps so, but the last reference to him was about her inability to get him on the phone.

When Robin was staying with April, they used to go on Internet chat rooms and write "the most ridiculous porn" to the men out there. April still did it sometimes when she was bored, and one night she "thoughtlessly" uses her real first name. She shrugs it off, but a man who says his name is Neil and who lives in Connecticut keeps suggesting that they meet. He tells her "I will be at the Starbucks on 41st and Seventh at 2:00 PM on Wednesday June 18th" and sends his picture. She tells no one else, but decides to meet him, knowing the risks.
If, in a given activity, there was a next step to be taken -- a taller cliff to dive from, purer drugs to try, something bigger and more difficult to steal -- someone, at some point, was going to take that step, it was like a law of nature, and so let the record reflect that that someone was her.
Something of her father has, after all, rubbed off on her.

She meets him at the coffee shop but gives him no personal information. She doesn't know how old he is: "she couldn't tell the difference between thirty and fifty, it all looked the same to her at her age." He tells her he has a convertible with "a killer sound system" and offers to take her for a ride in it.
She realized then that, whatever outcome she hade been pointing this toward -- one-upping Robin, getting her mother's attention again, whatever subconscious wish some shrink would probably say she was acting on right now -- it was all contingent on the idea that someone would see her, that she would get caught. The idea that she would not get caught had never really hit her before now.
So when they reach his car she doesn't get in it. He gives her a hug and his phone number.

Nine days later, Robin calls and asks for Cynthia. Her mother has slashed her wrists in the bathtub and is dead. Adam is out of town and Cynthia is too upset to go to the funeral, so April attends with her class. Robin doesn't come back to school in the fall, but the dean says he hopes she'll return in January. "April threw out Neil's cell number, and never went back into those chat rooms again, though it was not exactly reassuring to know that he was very likely still out there somewhere himself, calling out her real name."

Adam blows out a knee in a basketball game with other Dalton fathers, and after spending three days in the hospital and a week recovering at home, he returns to Perini on crutches. He becomes the object of jokes in the office: "It was a survival-of-the-fittest kind of humor, where they laughed at his weakness more or less in lieu of killing and eating him, but he didn't mind it, he would have expected no less."

In February, after his leg has healed, Sanford calls Adam in and announces that he plans to retire in two weeks and turn everything over to Adam. The news arouses "an alien panic" in Adam. He realizes that his position as head of the firm will draw outside scrutiny. He tells Sanford that he will have to talk it over with Cynthia, and goes home to calculate how much money he has in offshore accounts.
There was enough for them to live on for the rest of their lives, but what did that even mean? It was unsettling to think of money in terms other than those of growth, of how it might be used to make more money. Something about it smelled of death to him but he didn't know why. 
He declines the offer. "It didn't take even an hour for Sanford's hurt and astonishment to turn into anger." Adam goes home and tells them that they're all going to London for a week. April and Jonas "looked at him like he was nuts, as did Cynthia, but they had always been raised to respect spontaneity and it was much too good an offer to turn down." At the end of their stay, Adam tells Cynthia that he is thinking of buying the flat they are staying in. "She looked at him as if he were a little mad, but then she caught something exciting in his eyes and threw up her hands and said, 'Why not?' That as it: everything was open to them. What was life's object if not that." He needs to get the money out of the offshore accounts and shut them down, and he wants to "spend it all on the three of them, as orgiastically as possible.... There was, after all, no life but this life."

When he returns to the office, Sanford fires him, believing that Adam intends to set himself up in competition with the firm, which is the furthest thing from Adam's mind. He goes home and calls Devon to tell him he's shutting down the scheme, which elicits only panic and suspicion in Devon. Adam assures him, "The future is brilliant and I promise you you have a place in it." And tells him to "get rid of the phone, get rid of everything. Just to be safe. Just don't look back and when the time is right you will hear from me again. Okay? Eyes forward. Trust me."

But then, as he contemplates idleness, "the idea of his own past opened up in front of him as something threatening and, amazingly, ineradicable." But he shakes it off by once again resorting to risk, losing several hundred thousand dollars by making wild speculations in the stock market. And he persuades himself that he has done it all for Cynthia.
The whole scheme, he reminded himself, had been for her benefit, and in fact it had worked out just the way he hoped it would: he had seen her stuck and unhapy and the thought of it had been too much for him; he had an image of the life he was going to make for all of them and it wasn't coming fast enough and so he had done what he'd had to do to speed things up, to get them all intact to that place of limitlessness that she so deserved and that he had always had faith they would occupy.

And then one evening she comes into his office to talk to him about celebrating his fortieth birthday, which had happened ten months ago, but which she thinks they hadn't celebrated in the proper style. And he decides to tell her about the scheme. "When he'd said everything he could think of to say, she started to cry." He assures her that he would have heard if anyone were investigating, but there was always the possibility that they might seize the money or even the apartment.
"I don't give a shit about the money," she said.

"You don't?"

"I don't. I want to ask you something else. It might seem off topic. Have you ever been unfaithful to me?" 
And when he tells her no, that he never had and never would, she puts her arms around him and calls him "a man among men. Let them come after us. They can't touch us."
Why hadn't he understood it before now? No wrong for him but whatever was wrong in her eyes.
This is a potentially sentimental scene, and perhaps some feel that potential has been realized. Yet it's consistent with the characters Dee has created. It just needs a strong closing section to justify it.

No comments:

Post a Comment