Read Millennials’ Novels, Not Think Pieces

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In 2016, a headline in the New York Times went like this: “Millennials’ Roommates Now More Likely to Be Parents than Partners.” The writer begins with a silly, easy line (“The empty nests are filling up”), and then moves on to the grim new findings: “For the first time in modern history, young adults ages eighteen to thirty-four are more likely to live with a parent than with a romantic partner, according to a new census analysis by the Pew Research Center.” How to interpret this new state of affairs? With plenty of dire assertions: “the grown children’s continued presence in the parental home can signal an inability to take the steps needed to become real adults”; “[This grand shift] violates our cultural sense of how young adults should live their lives.”

Stop me if you’ve heard this all before. The Millennial Think Piece is now a distinctive genre with its own conventions: Pew survey results followed by lazy and overly generalized pronouncement followed by hedging qualification (not all millennials are college-educated) followed by more lazy and overly generalized pronouncements. Millennials show the dangers of helicopter parenting; they illustrate a shift from personhood to selfie-hood; etc.

I’m a millennial, and I’m sick of us. Or, at the very least, I’m sick of what the New York Times and Slate think about us. We need to pay less attention to the grand meaning of millennials and more attention to the experience of millennials. In other words, we need fewer think pieces and more novels.

Three recent books—Greg Jackson’s short-story collection Prodigals and a pair of novels, Stephanie Danler’s Sweetbitter and Tony Tulathimutte’s Private Citizens—help address this imbalance. All three are debut works by writers in their thirties, and all three successfully address the central questions that any thoughtful young adult must consider: What does it mean to lead a good life? What is the role of work in such a life? Of love? Of community? How are we to meet what Jackson describes as the “implausible hope that someone might…find her and lead her inside, not to a bar, not to any one room, but to the sanctum of shared reality where a mind took its form in another”?

These questions wouldn’t be unfamiliar to characters from a novel by Austen or Dostoevsky. Contrary to what the think pieces might lead you to believe, millennials aren’t monsters incubated in a social-media petri dish, nor are they simply the products of changing cultural and economic circumstance. They are humans confronting the same problems—problems of desire, intimacy, and meaning—that humans of every other generation have confronted.

Of course, all three writers recognize that being a young adult now involves new phenomena. (New phenomena, we might add, that should lead more to sympathy than to censure: for all the talk of millennials’ failure to launch, the past decade hasn’t exactly been a great time to enter the workforce.) Austen’s characters didn’t have to worry about student debt, though they were painfully aware of how financial precarity might shape a life, and Dostoevsky wasn’t tempted by internet pornography—and, given his tendency toward addiction, thank goodness for that. Yet despite these historical and social changes, Jackson, Danler, and Tulathimutte suggest that young people today, both in real life and in fiction, are faced with the same problem that faced Emma Woodhouse in 1815 and Raskolnikov in 1866: how to become a self, with all the obligations that selfhood entails.

Contrary to what the think pieces might lead you to believe, millennials aren’t monsters incubated in a social-media petri dish

Greg Jackson’s Prodigals (Picador, $17, 240 pp.) is aptly titled. The stories in this collection focus on those who have been given much (education, privilege, therapy) and who are in danger of squandering it all. The typical Jackson narrator is white, male, well educated, impressively literate, and struggling to live a life that will do justice to the gifts he has been given—or, if this seems impossible, as it often does, to throw these gifts away in spectacular fashion. The first story, “Wagner in the Desert,” is the best in the collection. It begins with an incantatory flood of a first paragraph:

First we did molly, lay on the thick carpet touching it, ourselves, one another. We did edibles, bathed dumbly in the sun, took naps on suède couches. Later, we did blow off the keys to ecologically responsible cars. We powdered glass tables and bathroom fixtures. We ate mushrooms—ate and waited, ate and waited. Then we just ate, emptied the Ziplocs into our mouths like chip bags. We smoked cigarettes and joints, sucked on lozenges lacquered in hash oil. We tried one another’s benzos and antivirals, Restoril, Avodart, YAZ, and Dexedrine, looking for contraindications. We ate well: cassoulets, steak frites, squid-ink risotto with porcini, spices from Andhra Pradesh, Kyoto, Antwerp. Of course we drank, too: pure agaves, rye whiskeys, St-Germain, old Scotch. We spent our hot December afternoons next to the custom saltwater pool or below the parasols of palm fronds, waiting, I suppose, to feel at peace, to baptize our minds in an enforced nullity, to return to a place from which we could begin again.

The narrator and his friends are aesthetes of debauchery. Drugs, drink, and food are objects of great care, fastidiously chosen and generously consumed. Toward the end of the paragraph, we encounter a tonal shift, one that Jackson uses throughout the collection. We begin with the overwhelming—and maybe overwrought—sensual specificity of “cassoulets, steak frites, squid-ink risotto with porcini”; we end with the abstract desire “to feel at peace, to baptize our minds in an enforced nullity.”

It would be easy to roll your eyes at this narrator and his cohort. Doing “blow off the keys to ecologically responsible cars”—what a perfect distillation of a particular kind of highly educated, politically liberal ennui. But that shift from molly to existential desire, from Dexedrine to the longing to “baptize our minds,” is essential. Yes, we should laugh at the narrator’s ridiculous “lozenges lacquered in hash oil.” But we are asked to wonder—and, eventually, care—about what motivates such ridiculousness.

On the next page, the narrator fleshes out what lies behind this longing for oblivion:

I was by no means innocent…of the slow supplanting drift by which the means to our most cherished and noble ends become the ends themselves—so that, for instance, writing something to change the world becomes writing something that matters to you becomes publishing something halfway decent becomes writing something publishable; or, to give another arbitrary example, finding everlasting love becomes finding somewhat lasting love becomes finding a reasonable mix of tolerance and lust becomes finding a sensible social teammate.

This concern—that growing up is largely a matter of bringing expectations down—animates several other stories in the collection. In “Serve-and-Volley, Near Vichy,” the first-person narrator describes the exact moment at which a life begins to look less like an arc and more like a flat line: “I no longer felt young, but I didn’t feel exactly old. I felt, I suppose, that I was running out of time into which to keep pushing back the expectation that my life would simply sort itself out and come to resemble the standard model.” Still later, we hear about life as “a sort of buying in or selling out”—in either case, a venture into inauthenticity.

Again, we might think that these are simply spoiled and uninteresting bellyaches. The narrator in “Wagner in the Desert” is a writer; the narrator of “Serve-and-Volley” attended “one of those prestigious East Coast schools whose graduates are cagey about where they went.” What right do such people have to such angst?

But Jackson finds the origins of this anxiety as much in religious yearning as in unsuccessful professional striving. “Wagner in the Desert” takes place in “that particular California melancholy that is the perfect absence of the sacred,” and intoxication, it is suggested, is an imperfect stand-in for what is absent. In another story, we hear that “beyond simple aloneness a deeper architecture of loneliness exists,” and that this deeper architecture of loneliness resides in a “metanarrative breakdown.”

What does this term mean? It suggests that the character—indeed, all of Jackson’s characters—feel a breakdown not just in the story that they tell about their particular lives (I went to school, where I found love, which led to romantic fulfillment) but in the very possibility of their lives having any discernible arc or story. It’s a breakdown in “the prime fabric of meaning.” The dissatisfaction of Jackson’s characters is as much ontological and metaphysical as it is social.

Drugs, drink, and food are objects of great care, fastidiously chosen and generously consumed.

Stephanie Danler’s Sweetbitter (Vintage, $16, 356 pp.) is set at an unnamed fancy New York restaurant based on the Union Street Café, where Danler herself worked before selling her novel for a high six-figure advance. The novel was marketed (heavily—remember the advance) as a book about food for our increasingly food-obsessed, dinner-Instagraming moment. But it’s really a novel about the Sturm und Drang nature of being young: the romance, the self-destructiveness, the lusting after experience of all kinds.

When the novel begins, the narrator, a cipher-like young woman named Tess, is twenty-two. She has just moved to New York City. We don’t know from where, nor do we know much about her backstory: Tess tells us that she “had a mother who drove away before I could open my eyes, and a father who moved invisibly through the rooms of our house,” and that’s about it. Tess exists in the present tense, choosing New York because “there was only one place large enough to hold so much unbridled, unfocused desire.” She chooses to work as a restaurant server because…well, it’s not clear at first why she does. As Tess remarks, most people became waiters to wait while they became someone else, “a singer/dancer/actress/photographer/painter.” But Sweetbitter describes just how exciting and all-consuming restaurant work can be as an end in itself—how, at least for the staff at a high-class, high-pressure eatery, “nothing else existed.”

Sweetbitter takes place over a single year, and over this year we see Tess initiated into the occult mysteries and technical necessities of waiting (“Our goal,” Tess is told, “is to make the guests feel that we are on their side”); of wine-tasting (“The only way to get to know a wine is to take a few hours with it. Let it change and then let it change you”); of working while hung-over (“Advil, marijuana, and greasy breakfast sandwiches do not work,” but “Xanax, Vicodin, or their opiate/Benzedrine cousins, Gatorade, Tums, and beer do”). All of this is well done, as are Danler’s culinary descriptions: a ripe heirloom tomato is “so luscious, so tart I thought it victorious. So—some tomatoes tasted like water, and some tasted like summer lightning.” A glass of 2003 Puffeney Abois is “the color of cloudy rubies.”

Working at a restaurant forces Tess to pay more attention: attention to her own body, as she balances plates on her arm and refines her palate; and attention to the social divisions between the waiters and the backwaiters, the chef and the managers, the staff and the guests. Working in a restaurant, Tess’s mentor tells her, is a way to retrain our way of being in the world: “You were taught that the things of the world are flawed reflections, that they don’t demand the same attention as the world of the spirit.... And yet the world is abundant—if you invest in it, it will give back to you tenfold.” Sights are clearer, tastes are sharper, drugs are stronger.

This heightened awareness comes from working in fine dining, but it also comes from being young and in a city. Indeed, Tess’s amplified emotional and sensual experiences can be a bit much. Sweetbitter sometimes reads like a Downton Abbey of the restauranting world, complete with a love triangle involving Tess, a bad boy named Jake, and an older, more cultured mentor whose sense of self-possession Tess perfectly sums up like this: “Everything she touched she added an apostrophe to.” To be young, the novel suggests, is to feel the world deeply. Fair enough, but do we really need to see Tess crying—in public, at work, at a high-prestige restaurant, without repercussions!—after she burns her hand, and after she falls down the stairs, and after she’s scolded by a manager, and after she and Jake have words?

Toward the end of the novel, as Tess stumbles from one bar to another with a co-worker, she feels “the commuters pushing against us and we knew a secret that they didn’t, which is that life didn’t progress unswervingly, it didn’t accumulate, it was wiped as clean as the board at the end of the night and if we kept our spirits up, it meant we were inexhaustible.” The end of the novel proves this secret knowledge to be false: maybe life isn’t progressive, but it isn’t wiped clean either. To grow up is to realize we’re not inexhaustible. 

To grow up is to realize we’re not inexhaustible. 

Private Citizens (William Morrow, $14.99, 384 pp.) has a blurb on its back drawing a parallel between Tony Tulathimutte and David Foster Wallace, and it’s true: Tulathimutte’s prose displays a DFW-like velocity of thought—a quicksilver style that renders a quicksilver intelligence.

Tulathimutte’s novel follows four major characters who met while attending Stanford: the porn-addicted, self-destructive Will; the equally self-destructive Linda, who gloms on to friends, uses them for the drugs they can give her and the extra bedrooms she can crash in, and then moves on; Henrik, a science graduate student staving off breakdown with a cocktail of drugs; and Cory, a social activist who is prone to ranting against those less committed than she is to her exhausting list of liberal causes.

Private Citizens is set in 2007 in San Francisco, when this not-so-happy cast of characters is out of college but not yet into life. The book does have a plot, and Tulathimutte does end up connecting these four different storylines. But the real pleasure comes in his characters’ mini-rants about social, cultural, and political meaning in the age of millennials. Here, for instance, are Linda’s thoughts on “hipsters” after encountering a bunch in the wild at a house party:

Linda was torn by her almost horny desire to put them in their place, and her disgust for the antimatter vortex of taxonomy. The word that tainted every tongue that spoke it; the self-love that dared not speak its name. Deny you were one and you were one; call yourself one and you were a failed one; criticize one and it backfired instantly, since only the aspiring hip or resentfully unhip had a stake in disparaging hipness. It was a pejorative, but one that boring people overextended to malign all creative people. Why and where to draw distinctions for the transcultural culture of distinction? Who gave a fuck about the generation?

And here is Cory on female experience:

Jesus, was this really how it had to be for women, this constant dwelling upon crampy, jiggly, gassy ugliness? Or, equally depressing, was she worse, an anxious caricature of the feminized vulnerability she’d educated herself against? She felt run down by the mystifying hetero economy of looks. You wanted looks from the good-looking; looks were nonscarce, but unfairly apportioned to the good-looking. It felt awful to be leered at, and awful to be invisible. A luxury commodity that, for all its exclusivity, sure did a lot of advertising.

If you like this kind of self-reflexive writing—writing that, ouroboros-like, circles back upon itself to swallow its own tail—then you’ll love Private Citizens. I do, and I did.

Surprisingly, the novel moves toward a sweet, though not cloying, ending, where all the characters begin to break out of their egotism and remake a more adult form of community among themselves. “God, I actually love you guys. I love you,” declares Cory to the others. A millennial novel about millennial experience that ends not with solipsism but with a declaration of love: maybe if we listened to thirty-somethings instead of pronouncing upon them, we’d see that this isn’t so surprising. The kids are, in fact, alright. 

Published in the August 11, 2017 issue: 
Also by this author
A Hard-Earned Detachment

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