Jonathan Dee, “Palladio” & “The Privileges”

“Palladio” held my attention.

“The Privileges,” too.

Stylistically, there are contrasts.  The first is a huffing freight grinding up a stiff grade. The second is Train à Grande Vitesse at cruising speed, whole towns passed in a blink.

Yet both are heavy, insightful. As the New York Times succinctly put it: “Jonathan Dee … is the kind of writer who thinks hard about contemporary realities and then builds sturdy, stately novels of ideas around them.”

Dee told The Wall Street Journal that he wrote “The Privileges” in order to write about a marriage “where two people are so perfect for each other that it becomes problematic for the rest of society.”

Okay, we got the New York Times and Wall Street Journal so far, what’s with all the quotes? Well, it’s because I can’t…quite…put my finger…on…why I like Dee’s stuff.  He does lots of “tell,” for instance, that I don’t generally like. But Dee sucks me in. “Palladio” teemed with ideas and friction. It grew improbable and fat and deliciously, tantalizingly over the top. (Jean-Claude. The fire. The Culture Trust boys.) “Palladio” plays with rich themes about art and advertising and media and the message. It revolves heavily around a self-centered but enticing and terribly real female, Molly, who drives men crazy.  Molly kept me reading, that’s for sure. She is both media and message.

But, please, one more quote. This is the one that made me realize why I like Dee’s touch. This is from The Millions (  Dee is talking about “The Privileges.”  We’ll pick him up mid-stride:

“…to make the story of Adam and Cynthia into that kind of morality play where people would be satisfied by seeing them brought low–I just feel like I can be as judgmental as anyone else in real life,  but the idea of inventing fictional figures in order to then demonstrate my own superiority to them and to share that sense of superiority with the reader, and to take pleasure in watching them be punished for their arrogance, for their greed, for their fill in the blank, it just seems like a really empty exercise.”

And Dee’s novels (only read these two) are anything but empty.  They start with character and build out from there. And Dee stays out of the way, high up and hovering innocently above.  Yeah, earlier in the interview, Dee concurs that he’s a fan of Milan Kundera’s admonition that “it’s the writer’s job to frustrate or subvert any reader’s natural inclination to judge.”

Okay, a few of my own thoughts.

I wish “Palladio” were a bit more compact (okay, shorter) and the end kind of drifted off for me, but the core elements are fascinating, particularly the inscrutable Malcolm Osbourne and his edgy ideas.  This novel carries a bundle of treasurers. The relationships are taut and vivid. Dee is a big story-teller. He shoots high.  He has a feel for big, sweeping moments and “Palladio” has its share of well-pitched drama.  Dee’s writing can feel dispassionate at times.  Maybe he’s hovering too high. (I liked the switch to first-person at the end of this one and don’t usually care for such changes.)

“Palladio” is about the messages being sent everyday by individuals, corporations and advertisers. It will make you stop and think about the messages you receive every day—which ones you tune out and which ones you agree to contemplate. “Palladio” is about posing and salesmanship and it’s about where art and commerce collide.

Maybe it collides, to borrow a phrase from David Byrne, on a woman’s hips.

“The Privileges” is a rich read. It’s thoughtful and smart but not showy. Dee’s voice is wry and keenly observant. The writing is full of fresh imagery but it just feels natural and within context.

“The Privileges” is light on its feet and keeps sprinting, no look backs over the shoulder. There’s a substantial arc covered in the novel as a young couple marries, has two children, moves on toward middle age, acquires terrific wealth and watches as the offspring grow up. The story shifts to the lives of the children more than I had expected, but, as it turns out that is precisely Dee’s issue–what kinds of values and morals the rich today are passing down to the next generation.

The parents, Cynthia and Adam, live in a land of fancy drinks and limited concerns, like whether they can justify jetting off to Anguilla for a brief trip alone. Adam muses that “he had an image of the life he was going to make for all of them and it wasn’t coming fast enough and so head done what he’d had to do to speed things up, to get them all intact to that place of limitlessness that she so deserved and that he had always had faith they would occupy. It wasn’t about being rich per se. It was about living a big life, a life that was larger than life. Money was just the instrument.”

Not surprisingly, it’s not a pretty picture between these two and true satisfaction is elusive, although they remain dedicated to each other through many rough patches, all briskly told. Dee avoids melodrama by keeping events moving, and they do. When the story turns more heavily to the children, Jonas’ pursuit of offbeat art leaves in a dicey situation and he emerges with some new perspective on wealth and his own identity that is powerful. The final long paragraph is a thing of beauty and makes “The Privileges” a stirring, memorable book.

Jonathan Dee lost out to Jennifer Egan for The Pulitzer. He was up for “The Privileges.” Doesn’t matter much, but I would have voted for Dee. That’s okay. I’m not here to judge. And even thinking about it is just an empty exercise.


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