Breeds of New Yorker

Christine Smallwood

  • A Fortunate Age by Joanna Smith Rakoff
    Scribner, 399 pp, $26.00, April 2009, ISBN 978 1 4165 9077 4
  • The Group by Mary McCarthy
    Virago, 448 pp, £7.99, December 2009, ISBN 978 1 84408 593 4

In novels, a marriage is not only the place where comedy ends: it is also the place where tragedy begins. The wedding of Lil Roth, the opening act of Joanna Smith Rakoff’s A Fortunate Age, is followed by a lame attempt at spousal murder-by-scissors, a brief stay in a Manhattan mental institution, and Lil’s freak death after a bad case of flu. Lil hadn’t even planned to get married. At her college-sponsored commencement brunch she’d told her parents of her opposition to the ‘outmoded institution’. Her stand was dismissed by the company as naivety and, Moët clouding her mind and dribbling down her dress, she couldn’t think of an impressive intellectual backer, settling for the support of ‘any modern thinker’.

Lil’s fate is somewhat unexpected for a highly educated American woman of the late 20th century. She is persuaded to check herself into the mental hospital for ‘a rest’ – the sort of event that we associate with the mid-century. Presumably some kind of emotional or psychological apparatus could be used to explain the situation, but such workings are absent here. The logic is, rather, extratextual. Lil’s story, and everything else in A Fortunate Age, follows a template: the novel is a rewriting of Mary McCarthy’s The Group (1963), which charted the lives of eight members of the Vassar class of 1933 in the years after graduation.

More than a decade before she wrote The Group, McCarthy published an essay in Holiday magazine called ‘The Vassar Girl’, reflecting on the way women’s lives had changed since her student days in the 1930s. McCarthy and those like her had been inspired by female academics: women so committed to a life of teaching that they made the heroic effort to live alone, without male companionship, in ugly faculty apartments; who answered every question with a question, forcing the girls to establish their own intellectual values, and to idolise unorthodoxy. And yet, as she drily reported, such training in unconventionality had yielded an average alumna who had ‘two-plus children and was married to a Republican lawyer’.

This dreary fate was shocking because, after all, these weren’t Wellesley or Smith girls choosing a life of diapers and martinis. These were Vassar girls. And ‘the essence of Vassar,’ McCarthy insisted, ‘is mythic. Today, despite much competition, it still figures in the public mind as the archetypal women’s college … For different people, in fact, at different periods, Vassar can stand for whatever is felt to be wrong with the modern female: humanism, atheism, Communism, short skirts, cigarettes, psychiatry, votes for women, free love, intellectualism.’ When Priss is torn between breast and bottle feeding; when Kay winds up in the Payne Whitney clinic; when Dottie submits to the humiliation of buying a diaphragm only to throw it in a trash bin in Washington Square Park; when Polly’s married lover wiles away the afternoons in psychoanalysis – at all these moments, McCarthy is delineating a recognisably new way of living. It is strange, then, that Rakoff has attempted to define a generation (or ‘microgeneration’, as it’s known today) by backdating the situations in which her characters find themselves.

The Group is sometimes accused of being ‘vicious’; in knife-like prose it describes the way unconventionality becomes, or reveals itself as, convention. It measures the distance between the dreams of a younger self and the betrayals of adulthood, with its new dreams – some vibrant, some pallid. The black comedy of The Group comes from the characters’ lack of self-awareness, their bad judgment, their blind hypocrisy. Honest readers may conclude that they are not so very different themselves; when the feeling of superiority wears off, satire occasionally gives rise to sympathy. Rakoff tries the same thing, but hers is a more anxious novel than McCarthy’s, more ambivalent, and thus much less funny.

We first meet Rakoff’s group in 1998, four years after their graduation from Oberlin College, when they gather for Lil’s wedding. The event conveniently coincides with Beth’s move from Milwaukee, where she is studying for a PhD in cultural studies, to New York, where she plans to finish her dissertation. She rounds out the group already living in or passing through the city: Emily, an aspiring actress; Tal, an aspiring actor; Dave, an aspiring musician; and Sadie, an aspiring book editor who at least has the good fortune to have a job as an editorial assistant. (Lil, like Beth, is a graduate student in the humanities.) Oberlin is an expensive Midwestern liberal arts college known for progressive politics, a libertarian attitude to controlled substances, and students willing to pass four years of academic idyll surrounded by farmland. One would be hard-pressed to name an American institution of higher education that retained an archetypal nature of the sort McCarthy attached to Vassar; elite institutions don’t seem to reflect the problems of the age any longer, more superficial characterisations apply. College A draws hippies, for instance, while College B appeals to preppies with a taste for winter sports. Two years ago, however, the gossip blog Gawker, annoyed by an email from an Oberlin alumnus, announced a poll to choose ‘America’s Most Annoying Liberal Arts College’.

McCarthy’s characters – the privileged bluestocking daughters of suffragists entering adulthood during the Depression – were designed to bear a great deal of representative weight. Rakoff’s have more limited significance. They don’t represent a new stage in human consciousness; at best, they represent a recent breed of New Yorker, the Brooklyn gentrifier. As befits Generation X stereotypes, they don’t want to be lawyers and orthodontists like the parents who paid their tuition; they are vegetarians with creative ambitions who fear ‘selling out’. They are vaguely liberal and politically uncommitted. They are also all Jewish, and the Jewishness extends to minor characters as well, even inconsequential walk-ons like the Italian drummer in Dave’s band. Of this young man we know three things: he is good-looking, he has a good-looking sister and he is half-Jewish. It’s not clear what the Jewish angle is intended to convey. Jewishness as archetypal New Yorkness? A conscious repositioning of Jewish life from the margins, where it resided in The Group, to the centre? The creative writing dictum to write what you know? All, or none, of the above?

The plot is driven by two imperatives, one romantic – how to find a mate – and one economic: how to live without money, and then, once one has money, how to find nicer brunch spots. Lil marries the cruel Tuck, who drives her out of graduate school and into despair. Sadie is the golden girl with the active love life who settles down – and quits her job – only when she becomes pregnant by one of the two men she is dating. Boring Beth finds herself participating in some light bondage on a first date but, respectably, marries the man and lands a television column for Slate. Tal, who disappears from the scene like the lesbian Lakey did in The Group, achieves success as an actor, goes to Israel and becomes Orthodox.

A Fortunate Age is busy, and in a hurry; like an edition of an alumni bulletin, it is concerned with facts rather than the reasons for them, with the result that it cannot explain its characters’ actions or make them interesting. Is Rakoff’s substitution of Alcoholics Anonymous for psychoanalysis a pointed comment on a culture obsessed with addiction, intervention and recovery? Or simple narrative exigency? Anarchism doesn’t occupy the same political or social position that socialism did in the 1930s, so why are there so many anarchists? We are faced with a double bind: without The Group as a decoder, the plot of A Fortunate Age has no reason to exist; with it, the details are out of place. Rakoff has been praised for demonstrating that the choices McCarthy saw women as confronting about romance, work and motherhood still have to be made. Fair enough, but not a very strong commendation.

In The Group, McCarthy quickly burrowed her way in and out of her characters’ minds, sprinkling information like confetti: ‘Libby adored Of Human Bondage and Katherine Mansfield and Edna Millay and Elinor Wylie and quite a lot of Virginia Woolf, but she could never get anybody to talk with her about books any more, because Lakey said her taste was sentimental.’ Or: ‘But the red-letter day in Mr Andrews’s life was the day he became a Trotskyite. Not just a sympathiser, but an organisational Trotskyite!’ The prose is sneaky, doubled; ‘adored’ is Libby’s word, just as Mr Andrews is the one intent on the distinction between being a sympathiser and an organisational Trotskyite. Rakoff’s language is inflexible; every character sounds much the same, although some of them swear more than others. Both writers are attentive to surface behaviour, but McCarthy blended her reportorial instinct with an endoscopic eye. Rakoff’s characters float through a bland landscape of nouns. We know everything they do, but not how they do it. They don’t use their own words, and thus the lists – so sharp in McCarthy – seem bloated, pointless. Of Emily and her boyfriend, Curtis, Rakoff writes:

On Friday nights, they went to dinner at Bean or Planet Thailand or one of the new places in the neighbourhood. Saturdays, they slept in, ate a late breakfast at Oznot’s, then wandered around the neighbourhood – poking in shops, watching the dogs run around McCarren Park – or they got on the L and went to a movie or the Whitney or the Cloisters … Sometimes, they walked across the Williamsburg Bridge and wandered around the Lower East Side, looking for the Henry Street building in which Curtis’s great-grandfather had practised medicine at the turn of the last century. They bought nuts and red liquorice and candied ginger from the spice shops on Hester Street and ate dim sum from carts at the big Chinese palace on Elizabeth Street. And sometimes, they woke up early and went to the flea markets in Chelsea, looking for the old cameras that Curtis collected, or the rotting furs that Emily loved to try on, Curtis snapping her photo as she made faces in the mirror.

Passages like this establish a certain pace, a pattern. But Emily and Curtis’s itinerary doesn’t tell us anything about the way they think. There is nothing special about a New Yorker liking to ‘wander’ the city streets. If they didn’t like to wander, they would live somewhere else. McCarthy’s women were types, but they had presence. Rakoff’s have no substance.

In the new realist style, that reigning American model which celebrates old-fashioned characters and action, A Fortunate Age delivers demography. It is less a novel than a chronicle of Brooklyn gentrification, or more specifically that of Williamsburg, a neighbourhood that changed from a cheap artists’ enclave to the Mecca of luxury condominium development in ten years flat. On the night of Lil’s wedding, the group braves the ‘broken beer bottles and black, desiccated banana peels’ that litter the streets; by the book’s end, they are moaning about the new Starbucks. Rakoff hits the landmarks: Oznot’s Dish (the first restaurant aimed at the neighbourhood ‘pioneers’), Beacon’s Closet (a vintage shop), Planet Thailand (Thai food is the cuisine of gentrification). But although shops and restaurants are name-checked, they aren’t inhabited or described. Private real estate, on the other hand, is given generous, loving attention.

Brooklyn of the late 1990s is where the dream of Manhattan – bustling city blocks shared by people from all walks of life – breathed its last. Never again would it take 30 years for a neglected area to evolve from a desolate land of artists’ lofts to a pedestrianised shopping mall. Until the financial collapse, the pace of gentrification was measured in months, not decades. Sameness became an end in itself, the micro-niches determined by class more refined, the question of which thrift shop you frequented more urgent. As in a supermarket where a hundred different soft drinks beckon, the illusion of choice has the power to shape identity.

A Fortunate Age nonetheless poses a kind of existential dilemma: to what extent are we known or knowable by our purchases? We live, after all, as if we know others by theirs, sizing up strangers, making the infinite and subtle calculations that go into finding one’s crowd. In The Group, McCarthy allowed Helena and Norine to debate the meaning of such judgments: ‘“You were Morgan. We were Marx.” “Oh, Pooh!” cried Helena, almost angry. “Who was ‘Morgan’?”’ What is the meaning of a character, or a life, that exercises agency only through the power of the purse? The construction frenzy in Williamsburg has come to an abrupt halt. The blocks are pockmarked with vacant lots, mud pits and half-finished buildings. Rakoff may have been the novelist the boom years deserved.