Novelist Tony Tulathimutte sits at the back of the West Brooklyn, a coffee shop-slash-bar a few blocks south of the Metropolitan-Lorimer stop. It’s the sort of place that he might archly describe in his writing: all perfectly weathered wood and bare lightbulbs in construction-site cages, complete with a little to-go window (the sign, hand-lettered) opening onto the sidewalk. It’s early evening on a Friday—we both get beers.
“I’m teaching two fiction writing workshops for Sackett Street,” he says, “But mostly I’m doing full-time book promotion.” Tulathimutte’s debut novel, Private Citizens, published this past February, follows four college friends as they try and mostly fail to make lives in San Francisco in the late aughts.
“In tangible ways it hasn’t really changed anything,” he says of publishing his first book. “I’m still living in Bushwick with roommates at 32. Now I’m just promoting a book I finished three years ago.”
We talk about different reviews that have come out, the reactions he’s gotten from people he knows. “There’s a grade scale I use for that stuff,” he says. “If they say it’s interesting, that’s an F. They liked it, a D. They loved it, a C. They hated it? That’s a B.” Only a strong connection could evoke such a strong response, he explains. “If someone says it’s their favorite book, that’s an A.”
It’s a book that challenges its readers, and Tulathimutte acknowledges possible misreadings. “A lot of people see it as satire,” he says, but his intention is a little more complex and a lot more bleak. “These are four extremely self-loathing characters,” he explains, whose misery stems from their inability to justify their own cultural capital and capital capital. All Stanford grads: one friend, Will has struck it rich in tech, another, Cory, comes from money. “It doesn’t benefit anyone to treat extremely privileged characters with kid gloves,” Tulathimutte says. The novel acknowledges these characters’ problems—whether it’s general angst or finding oneself the subject of an unflattering and mildly viral video—as real; it also insists they are funny.
Private Citizens is also a novel very much of its time. Vanya, Will’s girlfriend, vacuums up venture capital funding for her lifestyle brand, Sable, which she pitches as an upbeat and accessible look at disability. Cory inherits a nonprofit that raises money for charity by throwing parties: Socialize. Linda, a substance-addled professional mooch, careens through a tech-bro party to the sounds of an anono-bro (“they looked identical, beards and knit caps and red plaid flannels”) hypen-filled pseudo-conversation:
It’s a brilliant passage, in part because of how close it approximates Hipster Ipsum, a meaningfully meaningless churn of buzzwords.
“I started the novel in mid-2008,” Tulathimutte says. “As I was writing, it was contemporaneous. In some ways I now talk about it as a period piece.”
Tulathimutte spent nine years in the Bay Area before heading to Iowa for his MFA. When I ask him what brought him to New York, he says, “It was a coin flip between here and San Francisco. I didn’t run here because it’s the center of literary culture in the United States.” (Laugh-cry emoji.) Ultimately, his friends were in Brooklyn and the rent had tripled in San Francisco. “It’s not viable to move there as an artist.”
“San Francisco is gentrifying in a monocultural way,” he says, because of the tidal wave of tech money. “Even New York at its worst doesn’t look like that.”
But his chosen city has its own costs. “New York is a place where its greatest strengths are also the worst things about it. Whenever you go out you feel an intense, mindboggling sense of possibility wash over you. But there’s an anxiety of choice, permanent FOMO.” He pronounces the acronym as its own word. “There’s no contentment in this city.”
We talk about the work of writing the novel. “It was originally 1,100 pages of totally fragmented notes.” He let go of some ideas—one a 50 page section full of multiple typefaces and font colors—and is satisfied (as any writer can ever be) with the book’s relative concision. So much of the revision, he says, was about “being less vain and preening, about wanting to prove through the novel that I was a bold, adventurous, empathetic, intelligent writer.”
That it succeeds is in part because, as Tulathimutte describes, Private Citizens is “a novel that so obviously incriminates its author.” All the characters (though he suspects his readers pin him in particular to Will, whose family is also Thai) are “60 percent me and 40 percent stuff I made up.” His time in San Francisco proved to be a rich vein of source material, but the freedom with which he borrowed from his experiences had hidden costs. “A funny thing happened,” he says. “It created a feedback loop. A lot of my real memories have been tainted by the fiction.”
Tulathimutte sees Private Citizens as part of a tradition of “post-grad anomie novels”: Mary McCarthy’s The Group, Keith Gessen’s All the Sad Young Literary Men. I offered up Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot and, like Private Citizen’s mirror universe twin, Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life. “A Little Life is not a comedy,” Tulathimutte says in answer. “But there is a way to play extreme suffering as comedy.”
Before it was Private Citizens, the novel’s title was Being Right—and so much of its action springs from the stories the characters tell to justify their existence. Tulathimutte mentions Vanya’s nickname for Will—baby—and Cory’s impulse to look the word “care” up in the dictionary. What these four friends don’t know, and what they are struggling to find out, is how to be in the world, responsible and reciprocal. “Caring is complicated.”