By Jonathan Dee
Random House Trade Paperback, $15.00 paper
We have seen the high profile cases: Martha Stewart, Bernie Madoff, Michael Milken. These are the people who live far above the working class, and when one falls, we revel in the story. In America, we love to see the high and mighty brought low by time and fate, and almost immediately, we begin rooting for their comeback. Madoff’s return is still in the offing and probably unlikely because he is safely locked away in North Carolina with a release date, even with good behavior, of 2139. Stewart has returned to the scene with her empire bigger and better than ever, especially with her recent deal to all but takeover the Hallmark Channel. Michael Milken used his considerable wealth after his release from prison to fund a variety of charitable, philanthropic, and educational organizations as a way to give back and seek redemption for his criminal activity.
For those mired in the middle class, it is difficult to connect with those people, and others like them who have made their fortunes on Wall Street. They do not make for sympathetic characters, so one must admire writer Jonathan Dee’s attempt to make such characters the centerpiece of his newest novel in paperback, The Privileges. His work, however, falls short of the criteria for great storytelling, and leaves us hungry for a fiction of more substance.
Dee traces the lives of Cynthia and Adam Morey, beginning with their lavish wedding in Pittsburgh through their fabulously wealthy middle age. Adam starts the novel working for Morgan Stanley, but moves quickly to a private equity firm known as Perini Capital. From there, using his generous bonuses from his boss, Barry Sanford, Adam enlists a young hothead named Devon to set up a variety of schemes netting him millions upon millions of dollars. With seeming grace and ease, the Moreys move themselves into rarified circles of which most of us can only dream.
From there, the novel meanders into convention. Adam amasses his fortune, much of it illegal, and is obsessed with his fitness and image. Cynthia flounders, seeking a purpose in her life. The couple’s two children, April and Jonas, grow up to face problems so stereotypical of children of privilege. April is a party animal, falling into drink, drugs, and sex; she eventually manages to escape a near tragedy that requires her to flee the country with her father to China to avoid the possible fallout. Jonas, involved with an art student and graduate work, tries to befriend a troubled and mentally ill artist who holds him briefly prisoner before he manages to escape.
The final scenes of the novel bounce back and forth from Cynthia at her long lost father’s death bed, to Jonas struggling to escape the crazed artist. No character gets his or her comeuppance, and there is no moral or decisive outcome. The novel reflects the life of the rich, wandering from one party or charity event to another, with none of the blowback that is normally a consequence of an immoral life. Nothing sticks to these characters as if they are coated with Teflon. Yes, the Moreys are privileged, but what that means, or ultimately, what Dee wants to say about that, is static and unrealized.
If the point of fiction is to create an imaginary world that illuminates and comments upon our own, what purpose does a novel like this serve? Yes, you have characters, but they do not rise above the level of cliché. In the end, Cynthia’s conflict with her father and stepmother is mildly interesting, but like the scenes with Jonas and the artist, lacks context. Not to put too fine a point on it, what is the purpose?
The problem with fiction in the twenty-first century is that real life is far more intense and intriguing than fiction. A novel should focus a light on the darkness and perversion that lurks in cyber space, on religious extremism, on man’s inhumanity to man, to name a few areas of exploration open to a fiction writer. A novel should strive to say something.
Think of past fictions: the ache of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s characters, their emptiness, their futile attempts to recreate what they once had; Hemingway’s old man, in his desperate work to land the great fish, the heroism prevalent in the face of failure; Joyce Carol Oates’ implied violence, echoing the work of the great Flannery O’Connor; Harper Lee’s Atticus Finch; Winston loving the Party he once hated at the end of 1984; and of course, the epic autopsy of 19th century London in the novels of Charles Dickens. Successful fiction of the last 200 years is filled with enlightening and thoughtful work that demonstrates far more insight and creativity than many of the novels published today, including this one.
Jonathan Dee’s novel does not advance the human story because it tells us what we already know. Although there is some interesting reflection in the characters, The Privileges is easily forgettable. In an interview attached to the end of the novel, Dee says that “In the end, what was engaging to me was not the idea of how the world might bring the Moreys to some kind of justice, but what the world would look like after the Moreys had passed through it. As time goes by, Cynthia and Adam become very concerned with the notion of their own legacy, and so did I.”
Writers should be primarily concerned with telling a story that illuminates and comments upon the human condition. If a writer does that, the legacy will take care of itself.