If populating your novel with unlikable main characters can be considered a bold move, then Tony Tulathimutte is a downright badass. Cory, Linda, Will and Henrik—the four pseudo-friends at the center of Tulathimutte’s Private Citizens—are some of the least likable contributions to fiction that I’ve ever come across.
Tulathimutte’s first novel, PC is a quarter-life crisis saga blended with a send-up of Silicon Valley, specifically 2007 Silicon Valley, when the influx of tech capital was just starting to turn insidious. Cory is a disaffected nonprofit worker, on the front lines of the chasm between heady liberalism and tangible altruism, who can’t help but preach about the perils of [insert cause here] to her uninterested friends. Linda is a party girl turned addict, hamstrung in her life goals by an aggravating combination of pride and inertia. Will is a successful Asian computer programmer with a complex about being Asian and a computer programmer. And Henrik is a bumbling bipolar mess, vaguely tolerable only by virtue of how awful everyone else is.
The conflict at the heart of PC is, as far as I can tell, various circumstances that bring together four college acquaintances (Henrik dated Linda, who roomed with Cory, etc.) several years after graduation, thereby forcing them to confront each other and themselves, insofar as one can adequately confront one’s burgeoning adulthood from the enlightened age of 24. Cory is principled but floundering; Linda is just floundering. Will is a whiny malcontent, Henrik an indecisive lump. Together they are a whirlpool of emotional immaturity, which earned Private Citizens almost universal categorization as a “millennial novel.”
No question, Tulathimutte is a great writer. PC is nothing if not affected—one memorable monologue occurs as a multi-page run-on sentence strung together with dashes—but for the bulk of the novel it’s an affectation serving a greater point. There are also some lovely turns of phrase: Linda’s early 20s are an “experience jihad;” Will’s loneliness is “ambidextrous and trilingual and weighs 600 pounds.” Tulathimutte has a way of capturing the special cocktail of apathy, disillusionment and idealism that was undoubtedly de rigueur in the SF of a decade ago, and seems to dominate the millennial stereotype of now.
But what begins as a raw, if annoying, portrait of this particular poly-blend of West Coast hipster, by the novel’s midpoint starts to devolve into a parody of itself. The characters’ decisions are so stereotypical as to be comic; their reactions become almost batshit. By the last 100 pages, Private Citizens feels like a Chuck Palahniuk novel, or a David Foster Wallace impression gone wrong.
The trick to writing unlikable characters is also the trick to writing likable ones: Develop them, give them a journey and be real about the way they’d go through it. (Lena Dunham has made an entire study of this approach with Girls.) In Private Citizens, Tulathimutte takes a decent swing, but never quite connects. After all, if an overwrought vocabulary and a penchant for long sentences was all it took to make a great novelist, I’d be retired by now, occupying a mansion wallpapered with my own first editions.
TITLE: Private Citizens
AUTHOR: Tony Tulathimutte
ALSO WROTE: Freelance stuff, this book on ‘remote usability testing’
SORTA LIKE: Girls meets The Marriage Plot
FIRST LINE: “They were on a day trip, a nothing, the four of them in the hot car speeding north.”