Gunning for the Zeitgeist

Years ago, a friend of mine attended a reggae concert where the lead singer asked the crowd, “Who wants to hear a song about Rodney King?” The crowd screamed “Yeah!” but the singer wasn’t satisfied. “I can’t hear you! Who wants to hear a song about Rodney King?” More yells, shouts, enthusiasm, but not enough. This went on for several minutes. Finally, when the crowd was going wild, the singer began: “R-r-r-rodney King, Rodney King, Rodney King, Rodney King!” Those were the lyrics to the entire song.

That story came to mind often as I was reading Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings (Riverhead, $28), a very ambitious, decades-spanning novel that wears its pop-cultural significance with the awkward self-consciousness of a rapper in a jacket made of hundred-dollar bills. In The Interestings, Wolitzer aims to explore what happens to creative kids with big dreams as they grow older and must contend with electric bills and chronic depression and young children on the autism spectrum. The result is a rephrasing of Langston Hughes’s immortal question “What happens to a dream deferred?”—but sent through Louis C.K.’s White-People Problems transmogrifier. Rather than drying up like a raisin in the sun, upper-middle-class white people’s dreams seem to sit and gather dust amid the noise and clutter of a mundane life, like a piece of indigenous art from a country they’ve never visited, displayed to make them seem more interesting than they actually are.

The book’s protagonist, Jules Jacobson, spends a lifetime trying to convince herself and others that she’s more interesting than she actually is. Given the more common convention that has best-selling novels bestowing female protagonists with wisdom, patience, talent, and good looks, Jules’s plain appearance and mediocre abilities feel daring at first. But in keeping with that song about Rodney King, Jules never invites us deep inside the wellsprings of her disappointment and longing. Instead, she and her husband pick apart a Christmas letter from her wealthy friend Ethan Figman, a cartoonist-turned-mogul in the Matt Groening vein, and Ash, his pretty wife (who is also Jules’s loyal friend). Ethan and Ash and Jules met at a ’70s summer camp for creative kids, and now the couple serve as a reminder of Jules’s squandered potential as an actress—or her squandered potential as a rich man’s wife (it’s hard to tell which). Ethan has always been in love with Jules, but Jules isn’t attracted to him. Their interactions constitute the most engrossing scenes in the book, but their relationship doesn’t evolve from the first few pages. Likewise, Jules has always wanted to be an actress, but aside from some talk of acting classes and auditions, we don’t know what the dramatic arts mean to her. In other words, Jules is an actress in the way a song that includes the words “Rodney King” is a song “about” Rodney King.

And when Jules and her camp friends breezily discuss art and happiness over the course of their lives, these exchanges also lack the manic frisson of desperately necessary conversations about great big dreams that might never come true. The novel’s most dramatic moments—a possible rape, a cancer diagnosis, an acting teacher proclaiming Jules’s talent inadequate, an escape from the law—are described after the fact. We aren’t there when these characters stumble or flail or make big mistakes. They might feel frustrated or upset, but mostly they keep calm and carry on. As the book progresses, these people don’t sound like artists at all so much as children whose finger painting was praised a little too effusively.

Maybe that’s the point. And maybe by singing the words “Rodney King” over and over, that reggae singer was brilliantly underscoring the emptiness of that cultural signifier. But characters who never shake their earliest delusions about themselves only work if we’re allowed deep inside their psyches, and can experience their grandiosity and neediness up close. Instead, we observe these figures from a great distance, and find ourselves asking, “What do they expect, anyway?” The book’s best moments—scenes capturing the hilarious pretensions of its protagonists as smart teenagers, or Jules’s quasi-combative interactions with Ethan—are lost among almost clinical generalities. Wolitzer, who is an excellent writer, has been laid low by the modern fixation on sweeping, epic novels.

Is it wrong to see Jonathan Franzen’s influence yet again? His precise but frustratingly sterile approach to our times has become the unstated benchmark for so many authors, who tell themselves, “I can blow up marital dissatisfaction to five hundred pages better than that.” But if Franzen has the unfortunate tendency to be far more passionate when it comes to describing mountaintop-removal mining and songbird-population decreases than he is when describing his protagonists’ inner turmoil or acts of infidelity, at least there are strong convictions fueling his narrative digressions. By contrast, the skin-deep snapshots of various decades on offer in The Interestings repeatedly upstage the story itself. Each era is larded with culturally significant events that feel like needless detours into a diorama display. In 1981, Jules’s gay friend tells of a lover’s mysterious sickness at a dinner party where Jules also meets her husband-to-be, rendering the mood of the scene muddled and inconsistent. And in 1997, we are told that “tonight at dinner, like at all dinners lately, everyone was talking about the World Wide Web. They all had stories to tell about websites they’d been to, and startups they’d heard about.” Such numbing generalities conjure the hazy nostalgia of a General Foods International Coffee ad. (“Paris.” “That café!” “I loved that waiter.” “Jean-Luc!”) Straining to capture the zeitgeist might get you attention, but if you have nothing to say, it’s like yelling “Drinks are on me!” in a crowded bar, then ducking out the back exit.

Pop-culture references in fiction should feel motivated, and heartbreakingly personal. Think of John Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom in Rabbit at Rest, expressing his fear of death by imagining those poor Lockerbie passengers, suddenly falling through frigid air. Think of Jennifer Egan’s dying music producer in A Visit from the Goon Squad, his flat-screen TV with its “nervous sharpness that makes the room and even us look smudged.” This specificity and immediacy is often lacking in today’s epic TV dramas, films, and novels, which tend to fumble for the grand themes of our times with the grace of aCNN retrospective on “The Decade That Was.” Cultural sea changes are reduced to notches on a time line. Eventually, Wolitzer’s characters begin to feel as unreal as their awkwardly constructed, period-specific settings.

E laine Dundy’s 1958 novel, The Dud Avocado, mostly concerns itself with a brief period in the life of a young aspiring actress living in Paris among similar drunken misfits and reckless creatives. By today’s supersize demands, her book falls desperately short. But even though Dundy doesn’t set out to capture an entire era, or even a reigning way of life among expat aspiring artists in Paris, she does so anyway, in spite of herself. This, for instance, is how Dundy’s heroine, Sally Jay Gorce, describes her peers: “A rowdy bunch on the whole, they were most of them so violently individualistic as to be practically interchangeable. . . . That any of them would actually be talented had never occurred to me.” The force of Sally Jay’s naïveté and casual superiority is wrapped up in those two lines, and it pervades every page of Dundy’s aggressively comical book.

Part of the fun of The Dud Avocado lies in determining that our heroine is actually not much of an actress, and maybe not that smart when it comes to men, and possibly not that nice, either. Rather than being told these things outright, there are mysteries to unravel. When a lover turns out to be looking for a rich woman to support him, Sally Jay hopes to seek revenge by becoming a famous actress. “‘Fame is the spur,’ I kept saying to myself, ‘that the something something doth raise.’” Sally Jay is a little bit of a joke—and, paradoxically, that’s what makes her impossible to resist.

Dundy’s pop-cult references are mostly employed for comedic effect, but they’re always highly personal—and somehow Sally Jay’s impressions always feel trustworthy. In one anxious scene, she watches an older woman seduce her crush. “‘But you are far too young,’ she murmured, suddenly all soft and wondering. It was like watching an early Dietrich film.” EvenSally Jay’s disillusionment has a whiff of accuracy to it: “God how I hated Paris! Paris was one big flea bag. Everything in Paris moved if you looked at it long enough. . . . In fact, all those shrewd, flashing glances, upon which the Parisian’s reputation as a wit is almost entirely based, are motivated by nothing more than his weary, steady need to keep on the bug-hunt.”

Both Sally Jay and Jules settle for men who adore them, for whom they feel a kind of ambivalent affection. But in Dundy’s hands, the superficiality of settling is far more apparent (and more visceral). When their relationship is still platonic, Sally Jay takes to modeling nude for the man: “I spent deep, peaceful afternoons there in that farmhouse-studio, posing for him throughout the long, cold winter with the rain outside and the fragrant warmth of glowing woodfires burning and mixing into exhilarating smells of turpentine, canvas, and oil paints. Gradually it began to seem rather an anticlimax just to get back into all my clothes after lying around with them off for so long.” It’s Dundy’s unique sense of the absurd—not her unique sense of the times—that delivers Sally Jay into the realm of unforgettable heroines.

Today, The Dud Avocado would be proclaimed too small and unserious to sell, and Sally Jay would end up lost in some big, somber tome about expat life. With any luck, though, readers (and writers) will eventually revolt against this inelegant avalanche of door stoppers. Because when it comes to novels, small (and bold, and esoteric) is often much more beautiful.

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine and the author of the memoir Disaster Preparedness (Riverhead, 2010).