By Charles Matthews

Saturday, December 4, 2010

4. The Privileges, by Jonathan Dee, pp. 175-258

The Privileges: A Novel4.
Jonas is a junior at the University of Chicago, trying to live as if he weren't fantastically rich.
People had weird ideas about money. Like not spending it was condescending somehow. Like being rich meant acting rich, whatever that entailed, and if you didn't live the way you could live every moment of the day, you were displaying a kind of reverse pretension.... No one could help what they were born into. You just had to start from zero and not let it determine who you were.
Like his parents, but in his own way, Jonas has finally embraced the virtue of pastlessness.

Unfortunately, because his parents are famously wealthy, he can't escape his past. Cynthia is the head of a foundation that bears her name, and Adam, having escaped prosecution or even detection for his insider-trading scheme, now manages a hedge fund that has multiplied their wealth exponentially. April has become a Paris Hilton-style playgirl, whose adventures run the risk of turning up on Page Six.

In his attempt to downplay his wealth, Jonas lives modestly, but even his girlfriend Nikki's parents are "a little puzzled" that the off-campus apartment where Jonas and Nikki live isn't nicer. Nikki is a TA for "a famously charismatic lunatic" art history professor, Lawrence Agnew. She has "a face made up of perfectly harmonized eccentricities: freckles, an overbite, a mannish brow, long black hair that was never held back in any way, so that whenever she leaned forward to take a note, her face disappeared from view." They met in one of Agnew's classes, and his success with her only added to his fame on campus: "Undergrads who dated TAs were like rock stars, at least if the TA was as beautiful as Nikki was."

He is so infatuated with Nikki, whose research fellowship work for Agnew keeps her in Chicago, that he decides not to go home for the summer. But he lets Cynthia "send the jet for him" so he can spend a week at home. April is not there, but she decides to visit him after he returns to Chicago. He is "a little shocked at how she looked: almost junkie-skinny, though her eyes and her skin were pretty clear and he had warned himself not to exaggerate." She is disdainful of his choice to live as if he didn't have money, calling him "Gandhi." "'Mom and Dad's money,' he said, 'is not who I am.'" She is equally detached from her parents' charity  work, "the whole Robin Hood gig they have going.... Let me tell you, there are two people with no guilt. None. I don't know where you got it from, is my point. Maybe Dad is not your real father. Maybe Mom was having an affair with Che Guevara or something." She cuts her visit short, but before she leaves she goes to a gallery and spends sixteen thousand dollars on a Picasso sketch for them. "I don't get it," Nikki  says. "I thought she hated me."

Jonas and Nikki go to a party at Agnew's apartment, where Jonas examines the art on the walls, "dozens of small-scale artworks in cheap stationery-store frames." He had met Nikki in Agnew's course on art brut, and had seen an "outsider artist," a mentally disturbed man named Martin Strauss, at work outside the Art Institute, where Agnew had scoffed at works by Monet and Picasso. He recognizes one of the works on Agnew's wall as that of Strauss. Agnew tells him that he's involved with a dispute with the gallery owner who represents Strauss on behalf of Strauss's elderly parents. Agnew had given Strauss money for the drawing, "but the gallery owner considered this thievery because, he said, the artist had no way of properly valuing his own work." Agnew is troubled by the commercialization of such artists by middlemen like the gallery owner, but admits that the owner probably has the law on his side.
"I'm interested only in the artistic expression of those whose mental or psychological circumstances lie outside what society has defined as acceptable." "The insane?" Jonas asked. Agnew frowned. "I try not to romanticize them," he said, "for good or bad. Whatever they may have done to marginalize themselves is immaterial. As artists, they sit down to engage their art with absolutely no sense of a viewer, of history, of an outside world. Does that make them insane? You look at what they produce and the only proper answer to that question becomes, What's the difference?"
Jonas agrees to take the Strauss piece and return it to the gallery owner because, as Agnew says, "like it or not, it is in the world, and has been assigned a value in that world, quite independent of what you or I or the artist think about that. Or can do to stop it, for that matter." 

Back in New York, April is prowling the clubs, taking speed and meth, and enduring the gazes of "sketchy-looking guys." She has met an acquaintance named Katie, who knows a guy named Dimitri, and they join up with "three other guys sketchy guys with accents, and two women whose job, it seemed, was to make out with each other once an hour or so to keep the others from losing interest in everything." Finally, April has "what she knew right away was a terrible idea" and they get in a car and go to the country house her parents have in Amagansett. They get high and drink a lot of alcohol "which helped them avoid peaking too drastically.... At one point April and one of the Russians -- they were Russians, she'd decided -- were alone in the pool house, and they decided to try to have sex, but it was pretty much a nonstarter."

They decide to head back to the city, and April "consoled herself that not a lot had gotten damaged or broken, though the whole first floor just looked vaguely grimy. Even the walls. Someone would come and clean it though." Dimitri is driving and when he passes a car he hits an oncoming van, which skids off the road and turns on its side. April "had lots of shameful thoughts in succession: Thank God it wasn't her car. Thank God she wasn't driving. Still, this was not going to be good. It was all going to fall on her, because they'd all been at her place, and because who were these people, really?... Suddenly she wanted so badly to be ten years old again." She finds a cell phone and calls her mother.

Jonas and Nikki go to an art fair at the McCormick Place convention center where representatives of galleries are showcasing their wares. "The rule of thumb seemed to be that the farther a particular artist''s own mind had pushed him toward society's border, the more you could charge for his work. It was somehow revolting and thrilling at the same time." Jonas finds it "loathsome" and feels contempt for the "smug bohemian speculators." They find the booth for the gallery owner and leave the Strauss drawing with "an indifferent gallery assistant." Nikki's task is to look for certain artists that had attracted Agnew's interest, so they split up. "Jonas was just about to start looking for Nikki again when he saw a group of charcoal portraits, if you could call them portraits, of people screaming.... Sometimes there was a background, slight variations on what Jonas ultimately decided was a gas station ... ; there were also some simply drawn dogs, and boxlike forms that may have been televisions.... But it was the faces, the upturned open mouths, that were most ambiguous and obsessive."

He gets the name of the artist, Joseph Novak, but the woman in the booth will tell him only that Joseph had been in an institution after he committed a crime as a minor, and that his brother in Kenosha had brought the drawings to her. She had met Joseph only once and "well, communication is difficult, let's say that." When he rejoins Nikki he asks if Joseph Novak is on Agnew's list "and felt a small thrill when the answer was no."

Cynthia is handling April's mess, meeting with their lawyers and then with Marietta, who advises her on the public relations side of the affair. When she gets back home at three, April is still asleep. Cynthia has "spent the last thirty-six hours involuntarily remembering all the times she herself had been high and in a car, as a passenger or, God help her, behind the wheel, back when she was April's age.... It was beyond Cyntia, and probably beyond Adam too, to express or even to feel privately any real disappointment in either of their children." The real problem is "that the Morey family existed now on a public plane as well as a private one, and in that light something had to happen to make sure this kind of incident never took place again." The chief rule: "family trumped all other considerations." Marietta has informed her, "People would love nothing better than for you to turn out to be hypocrites and scumbags instead of the generous, caring family that you are."

Finally, the housekeeper, Edina, announces that April is up. Cynthia informs April that her father will be home soon and, "I spent this morning with our lawyers and basically, as it concerns you at least, in legal terms, the whole thing never happened." April asks about Dimitri and the driver of the van, and Cynthia tells her only, "Nobody's dead." Cynthia finally says, "I'm sorry, but you cannot just scare the shit out of me like that and expect me to be cool about it. I do not want that to happen again." April says she doesn't want it to happen either, but then adds, "I'm pretty sure it will. Happen again. Even though I don't want it to. I can feel myself forgetting what it feels like to feel this way." And then she focuses on the existential emptiness of her twenty-one-year-old life: "I mean, what am I supposed to do with all my time?"

It's a dilemma unfamiliar to Cynthia, who has her foundation and the resources to deal with the "antipoverty initiatives of all kinds" that people bring her. "No more intermediaries between her desire for a better world and the world itself; all she had to do was imagine it." Which is precisely what Adam's goal was in amassing wealth for his family -- the ability to fulfill whatever they can imagine. Unfortunately, April has no imagination beyond finding something to do with her time. And for Cynthia, all of her own "triumphs receded like moons into a distant orbit of the fact of her child's unhappiness."

For Adam, when he arrives home, "It was much harder than it should have been to stop thinking about work," when "his hedge fund ... over the four years of its existence had put up numbers that pushed him into shamanistic territory, where people earnestly believed that he was performing a kind of magic." Even as he sits down to talk with April and Cynthia his phone buzzes with a call from Devon, whom he'd put in charge of commercial-realty speculation, but he lets it go to voicemail. He explains to April once more that because people are fascinated by the amount of money they have made, they have become a target to "people who do not want people like us to succeed, even when our success benefits them. Like the scorpion and the frog." And that "in order to protect both you and the good work that this family wants to continue to do, we have to take some steps. We have to be proactive."

April says she is "going to fucking lose it" if he says the word "rehab." But instead Adam says that he has to go to China for ten days, on behalf of both the business and the foundation, and that April is coming with him. That will give them time for "your buddies who trashed our country place to go through the system and for us to settle with the van driver on their behalf.... The whole point is to be somewhere where nobody has any idea who you are." After April stomps back to her room and slams the door, Cynthia asks the eternal parental question, "What did I do wrong?" Adam tells her that she did nothing wrong. "She'll figure it out. The way you grow up is you find your thing to struggle against, and I mean, look around.... Whatever it is, we've hidden it pretty well."

Jonas volunteers to be an unpaid research assistant for Agnew. "It's like something I've been looking for, if that makes any sense. To be honest, I'm already thinking ahead to what I want to do after next year. I think I could get a jump on a thesis this way." But Agnew, like everyone else, is fascinated by Jonas's superrich parents, and mentions that Adam rented out the New York Public Library to throw a birthday party for his wife.  Jonas corrects him: It was their anniversary. And he recognizes that Agnew is hinting disapproval for the excess, and says, "all the display wasn't for anybody else's benefit. it was for her. That's the way my dad thinks. They are just really in love with each other, in this kind of epic way. So I just try to focus on that. That's the real context of everything they do -- each other. The other stuff is just kind of outside the walls."

Agnew doesn't quite comprehend it, and tells Nikki, "That's some end-times shit, your boyfriend's family." But then he admits, "this is some end-times shit too, what we're doing. I mean, what we're studying here, what comes after it? That desire to feed on every new expression of what it is to suffer and be human, that need to seek out what's unfamiliar and make it familiar, it's like a goddamn fox hunt, and over the centuries it has narrowed down to this."

Cynthia has to change cell phone numbers about every six months because people keep finding it out, but she has never changed the home phone number. She has put her assistant, Dawn, is in charge of keeping a log of the calls that come in to it. At the end of the day, Dawn brings her the list of calls, which "were about 95 percent junk." But one day, while Adam and April are on their way to China, Dawn points out the last name on the list for the day, Irene Ball, and asks if Cynthia is familiar with it: "She said she was calling on behalf of your father. She wouldn't say why, though. I kind of had a feeling it was bogus. She actually called three times."

On Saturday, the home phone rings again, and this time Cynthia picks it up. It is Irene Ball again, and she explains that Cynthia's father had given her the number. Irene explains that Cynthia's father had been diagnosed with liver cancer, then was hospitalized with pneumonia and had a heart attack while in the hospital, and then it was discovered that the cancer had spread to the pancreas. He has asked for treatment to stop, and Irene knows of a hospice with an opening. Cynthia writes down the name of the hospice, which is in Fort Myers, Florida, then pulls some strings to get her father transferred to it. Then she charters a jet to take her there.

On the flight to Fort Myers, Cynthia realizes that she hasn't brought anything to read.
She supposed that this was a time when one might think abut the past. Up to now she'd been able to keep herself moving and thus hover above whatever it was that she should be feeling. But going over her father's failings, their little moments of disconnected joy -- this seemed too much like eulogizing him, hurrying him into the grave.
The driver Dawn has arranged for her takes Cynthia to the hospice. Along the way she feels her distaste for "Florida. It really was a blight. Maybe that's why old people assembled here -- having to leave it behind wouldn't seem like such a bad deal." But she is greeted warmly by the staff at the hospice, and recognized immediately as "Charlie's daughter." She finds him asleep in "a fantasy hospital room, like the secret room deep within a normal hospital that only the man who'd endowed it would ever be allowed to use." Through a door she can see a veranda on which Irene is sitting, with her back to her, smoking a cigarette. "She wished the bed, or the room, or the place itself, was unsatisfactory in some way she could see, so that she could inquire nicely or pitch a fit or even just donate some money and cause it to be improved."

Jonas tracks down Joseph Novak, rents a car and drives to Kenosha. He calls Novak and finally gets him on the phone, where after a disjointed conversation he agrees to pick up some food at Arby's and take it to him. At the house he finds an outside staircase to the second floor and takes the food up. The door opens and he enters a living room that is brightly lighted and whose "walls were freshly painted in a kind of skull-frying white." "The odor inside the room was such that Jonas had to make an effort not to flinch."

Novak grabs the food and takes it to "a small, grimy-looking kitchenette off to their right," where he inspects it carefully. Not knowing what Novak would order, Jonas has brought  a variety of stuff, including sodas, which Novak pours in the sink. Each of them is surprised that the other is so young: "Novak, though he was well on his way to baldness, still looked no older than about twenty-five." The conversation is difficult, to say the least, especially after Novak says, "You're here to steal from me." And when Jonas asks a question, the answer is usually, "I don't know."

Jonas realizes that he can make out "the ghost of a face" on the wall, and asks Novak if he sometimes draws on the walls. Novak replies, "Not that much. She just painted again. She was really mad. I only do it if I'm out of paper and can't go out, when I'm not feeling good." When Jonas suggests that he could supply Novak with all the paper he needs and asks if he would like that, Novak says, "I don't know." When Novak says he likes to draw with Sharpies, Jonas says he could get them for him. Again, when he asks if Novak would like that, "I don't know." And finally Jonas goes too far with his questions, and Novak starts walking toward him, saying "I don't know I don't know I don't know I don't know I don't know." Jonas decides to leave but while he's fumbling with the locks on the door "something hard, harder than a fist anyway, connected with the back of his head." He passes out, then awakesn to see "Novak sitting on a stool in the kitchenette, eating another one of the cold Arby's sandwiches, and looking very worried."

Irene comes into the darkened room where Cynthia is sitting by her father's bed, and they go into the hallway. Cynthia estimates that Irene is about sixty. Irene explains that Charlie has been taken off of all the meds except painkillers, and his blood pressure is so low that he sometimes has spells of dementia. A nurse goes into the room and finds him awake, so Cynthia goes back in. "'Hello, Sinbad,' he said hoarsely. 'What do you make of all this?' ... She hadn't heard herself called Sinbad in about thirty-five years."

Jonas finds himself sitting on Novak's couch. The furniture in the room has been rearranged, cleared away from the wall Jonas is facing. He hears his cell phone ringing, but Novak has taken it away. Now he brings the phone back in from the kitchenette and tells Jonas to stop it from ringing, but when it stops on it own, Novak puts it back in his pocket and leaves. Jonas realizes that he is "frightened, almost to the point of paralysis.... He felt like he might throw up, but instead he went to sleep again, and when he woke up, a good portion of that blank white wall in front of him -- the upper third of it or so -- was covered with a picture."

Cynthia has asked Dawn to check out the hospice and she finds that it is "well run and financed to the gills." It is disappointing in that there's nothing her money can do to better the situation, realizing that it's "the sort of selfish emotional fancy anyone with a sick parent or child might have had, the difference being that Cynthia had the resources to make such fancies real every once in a while." She is also in a kind of competition with Irene, staying with her father even after Irene has grown tired and gone home to sleep. She goes back to her hotel only when she is "too tired to stay awake, or when she needed a change of clothes so badly she could smell herself."

She telephones Adam, who tells her, "This may sound weird, but one thing I keep thinking about, which may or may not make you feel any better: you will not have to go through this yourself." She's confused, and says, "I thought I was going through this myself," so he has to explain:
"I mean ... I'm sorry I'm so far away. This isn't how it's supposed to go. But what I mean is that you and I pretty much had to start over in terms of family, and we did it. We succeeded. We're Year Zero. Those things can't ever be taken away from you again. Who knows why he chose to live like he did, but you will never be alone in that way. Just in case you were looking at him and wondering that."
"Baby, we didn't just succeed, we're a fucking multinational," she laughed, wiping her eyes. "We've trademarked ourselves. It doesn't get any more solid than us. Anyway, I am madly in love with you. Do you ever wonder what would have become of us if we hadn't found each other?"


"Yeah, me neither." 
She asks if he has been able to get in touch with Jonas, and he says he hasn't.

Charlie's dementia increases, and sometimes he talks to her as if she were a child and sharing some experience from the past. Cynthia takes a perverse satisfaction in Irene's presence overhearing this, because "for all the other woman knew, father and daughter were remembering something that had actually happened." But in fact he had gone mostly out of her life when she was nine or ten. Then one day he gets restless, trying to find his shoes, as if he wants to go somewhere. The nurse sedates him and explains that it's a common experience: "They know they're about to go on a trip somewhere, and they need to get ready.... You think it's a metaphor or something until you've seen it a few times." 

April is miserable in China. "She kept trying to hold on to her contempt for all of it but in truth the sheer strangeness was so menacing that she sat with her arms folded the whole time just to keep from shaking." One day they go to a factory in which Adam is an investor, and they are mobbed by the factory girls. April faints. Back in the hotel room, she confesses:
"I'm scared of poor people, basically. What kind of a hideous person does that make me?"

"Poverty is scary," Adam said. "The thought of not having what you need is terrifying. That's why people try so hard to avoid it."

"Okay, so, good, we avoided it. Why do you have to come here at all then? Why isn't it enough just to be us?"

"Your mother and I are trying to make the world a better place," Adam said.

"Okay," April said. "But why?"

"Well, you can't just do nothing. Otherwise it's like you were never here." 
But for April that idea is alien because sometimes she wishes she weren't here: "I try not to look forward but sometimes I do and it's all these days and I have no fucking idea what to fill them with. That's why sometimes I wonder if maybe what I'm really trying to do is, you know, shorten it."

Adam is shocked and disturbed. It is the counterargument to his optimism, and his assurances that "things will get better, because that's what things do" ring somewhat hollow in the face of April's nihilism. And it infects him. After she falls asleep, he reflects on the bleak sameness of hotel rooms around the world: "this room was the same everywhere: blank and haughtily self-sufficient as if it knew it would outlive you by a thousand years."

Charlie has another bad spell and has to be sedated again. Cynthia and Irene go to a Cracker Barrel on the other side of the Interstate, where Cynthia orders breakfast even though she doesn't know what time of day it is. "'Breakfast served twenty-four hours is one of the things that makes America great,' she said to Irene, who wasn't really sure what that meant but smiled delightedly." Irene tries to chat about her children and grandchildren, but Cynthia's purpose is to break with Irene, to have her father's last days all to herself. "I have very little time left with my father," she tells her, "... and to be honest I don't have the time to learn anything new about you or about anybody else he might have shacked up with." She bluntly asks Irene, "what is your endgame here?" Her father, she says, "was a man who got off being admired," and "if he had a woman in the room with him who thought he was just the shit, well, that's all he needed to feel good about himself." Irene, Cynthia observes, must be "thinking that your years of devotion to this fun guy with the rich daughter, if you can hang in there until the end, deserve some recompense."

Irene protests: "I'm just trying ... to honor his wishes. I'm just trying to do what's right. Money has never occurred to me." Cynthia replies, "You honored his wishes. That part is done. I'm asking you to honor my wishes now."
Cynthia knew her father well enough to know exactly what he had meant to this poor woman, all the high spirits, all the promise, all the purpose implicit in taking care of someone who expected to be taken care of. But now he was on his deathbed and there were no more high spirits for Irene. 
Irene asks for a hundred thousand dollars. Cynthia agrees and gives her a number to call and says there will be papers to sign. But then Irene says, "That won't be necessary."

"Cynthia was about to insist, as she knew she should have, but something in Irene's face advocated for mercy." Irene offers her a ride back to the hospice, but Cynthia calls for her driver.

Jonas's cell phone keeps ringing until Novak drops it into the toilet. Jonas remains unsure whether he is a prisoner or a hostage, but fear keeps him from making another attempt to leave, and he realizes he doesn't remember when he ate last; he "didn't really feel up to the risk of testing him again." He begins to wonder what will happen to him when Novak fills up the wall with his drawing. Then there are footsteps on the stairs outside, but it's only the landlady coming to complain about the smell and ask him to take down his garbage. Jonas silently urges the landlady to use her key and open the door, and then decides to make a run for it. But Novak intervenes and cuts him off, telling him to be still. "Unless you have to pee or something, and then just use the bathroom. This isn't my fault, you know. You think you're so smart but you're stupid. Do you have any idea how much trouble I'm in now?"

Cynthia returns to the hospice, longing for her father to stay alive.
He was the living rebuke to whatever other people may have said or thought about his selfishness, his delinquency, his supposed mistreatment of her, because his adoration of her was no fake, no pose. He knew how to do it, and to make her feel it, from afar. He believed in her self-sufficiency. She adored him too. Everything was good between them, but she needed him alive in order to prove that.
She gives up the hotel and puts her driver on a retainer. If she needs to go somewhere, she reasons, she can get a ride with the nurse. They might even stop at the nurse's home on the way, she thinks, so she can "get a glimpse of how such people lived.

She wakes up to find him looking at her. He tells her, "We probably have to get to the church pretty soon. Don't we?" She thinks perhaps he is talking about his funeral, but when he says, "They can't very well start without us, can they?" it also sounds like he's talking about her wedding. And once again, the motif of cutting off the past enters:
The way to stay with him, if you didn't understand exactly were he'd gone, was to eliminate the backdrop of time and place, forget about it, let it fade away, so that it was just the two of you standing against a blankness. So that there was only the present. This was what the two of them knew that no one else had ever understood. Everyone always wanted to know how she could forgive him, but forgiveness was a false premise. The whole idea of forgiveness presumed you were locked in the past and trying to let yourself out.
She climbs into bed with him, lying with her back to him on top of the comforter, and hears him say, "This is your day.... It's all in front of you. What a gift to be young." When a nurse awakens her later, he is gone.

Jonas is wondering why he got himself in this predicament.
It was like there was no actual heart of darkness anymore and so he had to go and build one up out of nothing, and he had done such a good job of it that maybe he was really going to die here and wind up as just another element of the overpowering stench in which Novak somehow managed to live.
He has a raging headache and the lump at the back of his head seems to have grown. And although he has rejected the idea of Stockholm syndrome earlier, now he feels it: "the point of identification with your captor. His whole life is stunted, Jonas thought; it has not conditioned him to survive even one day outside his own front door. Neither has mine." But now he becomes aware that Novak has fallen asleep working on the last white space in the lower right corner of the wall.

He makes his way carefully to the door and down the stairs to his car. He is dizzy and his head is pounding, but he finds his way to the highway, He stops at a McDonald's, but a few miles after he has eaten he pulls off the road and throws up. He realizes that he should find a phone and call the police or take a nap, though he also remembers that if you have a concussion you shouldn't go to sleep. Cars honk at him and flash their lights, and he doesn't know why. He just wants to get home, but he begins to confuse the home he shares with Nikki with the home he grew up in, and he wants to tell his parents something, "which was that he had finally figured them out":
They had more money than anyone could ever spend -- so much money that they had to hire people just to help them figure out how to give it away -- and yet, rather than stop, his father worked harder than ever, making insane amounts of it, obscene amounts of it, out of thin air. It was like when people used to ask, do we really need all those nuclear missiles? How many is too many? The correct answer was that there was no such thing as too many, because it wasn't about need, it was about feeling safe in the world, and were you ever going to feel as safe as you needed to feel? No.... What you wanted most of all, from a strictly evolutionary point of view, was a short memory.
And as he drives on he thinks of the various things he could tell Nikki about what has happened to him, and concludes with "I don't remember anything that happened before yesterday. I found your address in my wallet. I couldn't remember my name. I couldn't remember your name. I still can't. Let's go out and get new ones. My treat."

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