The Anxiety of Influencers

Private Citizens: A Novel BY Tony Tulathimutte. William Morrow Paperbacks. Paperback, 384 pages. $14.

No novel has taken the task of defining a generation more literally than Generation X, Douglas Coupland’s first-person narrative of post-Reagan, post-college drift, with its long lexicon of neologisms for the 1990s: Cryptotechnophobia, Conspicuous Minimalism, Lessness, McJob, Mid-Twenties Breakdown. Published without hype in the spring of 1991, Generation X was a word-of-mouth best seller by fall. “I don’t want to be a ‘spokesperson,’” Coupland told a newspaper that winter. “I just want to show society what people born after 1960 think about things. We’re sick of stupid labels, we’re sick of being marginalized in lousy jobs, and we’re tired of hearing about ourselves from others.”

That statement, more so than the novel, is a time capsule of affectations: the scare quotes for an unsuspicious word choice (“spokesperson”); the lack of scare quotes for a questionable one (“society”); the use of “marginalized” to mean “bored at work”; the pretense that a white, college-educated cis male novelist, even if he was a Canadian, was somehow also voiceless in America. The novel was recommended to me during my own Mid-Twenties Breakdown by a Gen-X boyfriend, a perpetual adjunct professor given to remembering Lollapalooza, and I reacted to its sense of economics the way I reacted to Elizabeth Wurtzel’s psyche when I saw the 2001 movie adaptation of her 1994 memoir, Prozac Nation. Wait, I thought. Your problem is depression? Or maybe: Your problem is depression?

I entered the freelance economy in 2008 as a member of the most suddenly fucked group of otherwise lucky twenty-three-year-olds since the 1930s. In New York, it looked like every non-service job was an internship and every intern had $80,000 in debt, and even in Toronto, where I lived, the recession meant my peers and I were not exactly rewarded for creativity. We were entitled, of course: Our formative years were perfectly bifurcated by the arrival of Internet Explorer, and our resulting range of consciousness, our ability to believe in things we didn’t think were real (Tamagotchi, the Kardashians, the capture of Osama bin Laden), was—and is—unrivaled. As Coupland told the BBC on a 2010 podcast about Generation X, noting its subtitle, Tales for an Accelerated Culture, the rise of Web 2.0 in the mid-2000s had sped up the flow of information “in a way that makes ’91 look like a joke.”

The generalized problems of any age find their first expression in individual diagnoses. Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder is a good description of a culture accelerating as it falls apart. Manic depression, or bipolar disorder, is another. It was 2009 or 2010 when I read that overdiagnosis of ADHD, bipolar disorder, and autism had led to “false epidemics” of all three, and when I think about what magazines were saying about people my age, “false epidemic” seems like a synonym for “millennials.” Narcissistic personality disorder has been ascribed to every age in America, and to every generation as if it didn’t apply to the last. Recall Joan Didion’s 1979 announcement to Boomers: “Self-absorption is general, as is self-doubt.” The difference isn’t simply that millennials, unlike our parents, did what we were told and believed in ourselves, but also that, with the twin rise of personal branding and identity politics,we were obliged to be our own spokespeople—as if constantly hearing from us about ourselves wouldn’t turn out to be the most tiring thing on earth.

When I moved to New York in 2012, my attention deficit was as high as the federal budget’s, and no one I knew had fewer than two sources of income and three social-media accounts. A writer I idolized took me aside at a dinner and opened a chinoiseried tin. I counted five varietals of Schedule II drugs. “What are your problems?” she said.

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Tony Tulathimutte’s militantly ironic debut novel, Private Citizens, is set in San Francisco during a golden hour for upper millennials, from the last summer weekend of 2007 to just before the 2008 market crash. Will, Cory, Henrik, and Linda are best friends from college—Stanford, Class of ’05, like Tulathimutte—who’ve drifted apart. Linda is a show-off, precocious enough to get her English degree at nineteen and go to rehab before she’s twenty-one (though she’s too proud, or annoying, to be a member of any community). Rejecting received ideas like “have a fixed address” and “get a job,” she adheres to those tenets of Catholicism and feminist theory that let her believe she’s a femme Genet. Cory, born to new money, is an eating-disordered activist with inappropriate dreadlocks who believes in progress almost as much as she fears technology. She identifies as queer, vegan, socialist, environmentalist, and, whenever someone calls her white, Jewish; she unintentionally becomes the executive director of Socialize, a nonprofit start-up, after her boss dies. Henrik, born poor, is a bipolar scientist in grad school who’s been erectilely dysfunctional since he and Linda split in senior year, and who finds a rough solace with Roopa, an Indian hippie prostitute whose freeganism looks more like anorexia than actual anorexia does on Cory. Will makes $80,000 a year as a freelance coder and spends alone time as a “masturbauteur,” collecting and re-editing porn clips to suit his tastes and ethnicity (“there was one way to get Asian men into porn: in post-production”). Meanwhile, his girlfriend, Vanya, paraplegic and pretty as a love doll, raises $1.5 million in venture capital for a lifestyle and livecasting site that will “make disability exciting to watch.”

Private Citizens takes its title as a paradox, or as a challenge. To adapt a Jenny Holzer–ism, can people who aren’t political live exemplary personal lives? Is it possible to have politics without identity, or identity without branding? Novelists love agitating for the personal and apolitical as the authentic, and understandably so: The one thing the novel can still do better than other art forms is represent inner life. There is a certain kind of novelist who still believes that a less authentic persona is based on a more authentic self the way a Hollywood movie is based on a good work of fiction: loosely, selectively, and sometimes barely. It’s the version of the story that is easier to look at, and it’s a lot more salable. Some novelists, being so easily impressed—or intimidated—by images, forget that the movie doesn’t literally rewrite the book. The brand doesn’t remake the person.

In her 2010 essay on life during Facebook, published by the New York Review of Books and titled “Generation Why,” Zadie Smith likens the flattening effect of Web 2.0 software on personhood to that of bad fiction; she draws a likeness between rewriting and rewiring. “I am dreaming of a Web that caters to a kind of person who no longer exists,” Smith writes. “A private person, a person who is a mystery, to the world and—which is more important—to herself.” In a 2013 New Yorker Web piece on personal branding, Tulathimutte agreed. While the government’s warrantless spying threatens to turn “private citizen” from paradox to oxymoron, he says, rumors of the “death of privacy” are premature. “The more immediate threat,” he concludes, “may be the surrender of private identity: to perfect the total image of an impressive life, we prune off the parts of ourselves that can’t, won’t, or shouldn’t be seen.”

In Private Citizens, Tulathimutte’s realism tends to be hysterical as in ha ha, and his bouts of overplotting feel more like spitballing. The threat of self-mutilation (“prune off the parts”) is no joke, though. Look what happens to Will: Vanya’s livecast puts him under domestic surveillance, then online scrutiny. Her fans aren’t his; he’s “too Asian.” She compels him to get eyelid surgery, which edits the Asianness out of his face as deftly as he edits it into his porn. It also leaves him blind in both eyes. Although it sounds punitive, Tulathimutte means this to be merely a necessary pruning: Will’s loss of sight allows him to see himself without Vanya, and to see that his identity has been formed in opposition to being average, not to being white (it’s normal to confuse the two, but Tulathimutte doesn’t).

Forgoing narrative omniscience, which, like Cory’s weigh scale, is “impartial but always unfair,” the multiplayer, close-third-person narration is partial to Will, Henrik, Cory, and Linda by turns, and ambivalent about fairness. Tulathimutte makes each argument over self-definition, like Will’s attempt to defend his facial identity, feel both necessary and impossible to win. His characters struggle to reconcile privilege with fate, belief in oneself with being real. The one exception is “firm, broad, unambiguous” Vanya, “a Type A Left-Brain ESTP Post-Wave Feminist True-Cost Social Capitalist Progressive Independent Compatibilist Challenger Mahayana Buddhist Straight Mono Switch Femme; a Carrie, an Aries, and a Ravenclaw.” Will thinks she’s selling herself short, “but could he insist she was more complex than she said she was?”

Lorrie Moore’s first story collection, Self-Help, uses second-person narrators to spin memory into imperative, like advice columnists do. Here’s “How to Become a Writer”: “[In college] you meet many nice people. Some are smarter than you. And some, you notice, are dumber than you. You will continue, unfortunately, to view the world in exactly these terms for the rest of your life.”

The titular protagonists of Private Citizens inhabit a world in which it’s common to describe a novel or an idea or a T-shirt or a movie still as “so you” or “not you,” a world in which I, too, think of my persona as being not me but also “not not me,” or sometimes as being “more and less me.” Simple individualism is no longer wanted or affordable: Zuckerbergian transparency strikes me, as it did Zadie Smith, as reductive, but therefore also strikes me, as it did not strike her, as old-fashioned. What’s new is an idea of transparency as a two-way mirror, one in which a polished self-image mostly reflects what people want to see, while behind it, visible only if illuminated, is what we want to be like. We can be secretive, but we can also be confusing, by putting out too much information. To beat the algorithms of life online, we can become unpredictable. I was riddled by Tulathimutte’s ending. Written on the whiteboard at Cory’s office, as she packs up and leaves the failed nonprofit, are the novel’s last words, though not in this order: HELP YOURSELVES FREE.


Sarah Nicole Prickett is a writer in New York and the editor in chief of Adult.