In Tony Tulathimutte's debut novel, San Francisco is a "ukulele-strumming cuddle party." The "abundance" of its "million-dollar vistas was exhausting, like daylong nudity."
From that lofty perch, Private Citizens dive-bombs down to street level to detail the lives of four millennial San Franciscans: an activist, a slacker, a would-be writer, and a grad student, none of them doing altogether well. Throughout, there are precious gems galore: A passage on the grossness of the human tongue as an argument against intelligent design, and a declamation on porn as an art form that suffers from "weak criticism"; a character who loves kale and yoga but hates them for being "capitulations to the male gaze marketed as fitness"; and another who suffers "the outrageous indignity of mailing a letter" in the digital age.
At times, the wordplay can almost start to feel like those tiresome million-dollar San Francisco vistas. If you're the type of reader who bristles over extraordinarily articulate characters who are really into etymologies and anagrams, you may have trouble when a character begins writing a journal with the sentence, "It's so me of me to write a journal."
However, for all the javelins Private Citizens chucks at San Francisco caricatures, there is a refreshing lack of bitterness and rancor. The author takes his post-collegiate protagonists down a peg or two, but he never curb-stomps them. ("I'm really fond of my characters," Tulathimutte tells SF Weekly, "but I'm also not going to back away from the question of their privilege.") He avoids the smarter-than-thou trap that the haughtily cruel Linda falls right into, of a "chilly, sort of valueless sensibility." For every fight scene between two smug lefties nuking one another's blinkered politics, there's a comical moment where someone blasts Autechre to disperse an unruly crowd at Dolores Park or yells "Back door!" to hop off Muni. As a character-driven book that's fairly thin on plot, Private Citizens succeeds on the charm of its verisimilitude and the brilliance of its observations.
Although a handful of references — tech buses, for instance, or calling something "basic as fuck" — feel almost too current, Private Citizens very explicitly takes place in 2007-08, with interludes to the early aughts. It's the eve of the recession, and the last period in history when college-educated intellectuals could plausibly get by while lacking a cell phone or proficiency with Google. Jack's and The Attic are alive and well, as is the Bay Guardian — and a certain restaurant where you could inform your server "I Am Vibrant without guacamole."
This was all by design.
"I actually tried really hard to consciously date the book," Tulathimutte says. "Not to try to keep up and use the novel as a form of cultural reportage, because they just take so damn long and there's not any good at it."
But, he notes, with respect to a novel about tech, the standard timeline may not apply to San Francisco.
"San Francisco is by nature a progressive city, and progressive in all these different ways," he says. "We adopted things like Twitter and Google Maps and Uber way, way before the rest of the country — because they were headquartered here. 2007 was when the iPhone came out, and just after Facebook opened to the public. But in San Francisco, these things had actually been fairly well entrenched, because people got beta versions. The early embrace of those things was totally normal."
Compared to a joyless, anti-Silicon Valley screed like Dave Eggers' 2013 The Circle, the specificity of Private Citizens' chronology liberates Tulathimutte from any burden of representing the tech world as a monolithic entity that will destroy everything pure and good. (The Singularity isn't even a whisper in this book.) Hapless activist Cory Rosen inherits an amorphous nonprofit and betrays her own idealism through synergies and co-branding, but — spoiler alert! — the consequences don't perturb space-time. Cory merely finds herself unemployed, ransacking office supplies.
In a sense, a novel about San Francisco that takes place almost entirely in San Francisco feels like a rarity. For a place that looms so large in the country's popular imagination, was he surprised that there wasn't a rash of similar books published during the eight years he spent writing Private Citizens?
"I would dispute that there haven't been narratives about the West Coast or the Bay Area in general," Tulathimutte says. "It's just been parochialized to one thing in particular: the tech industry. People cannot get enough of it. There's social media, there's the two Steve Jobs movies, there's Silicon Valley."
Private Citizens' rebuke against the Internet is more a question of form rather than content. Simply by being a 372-page novel, it defies the pressure to shrink everything down to tweet-friendly clickbait. While character-driven books like this have often been referred to (perjoratively) as "hysterical realism," Tulathimutte prefers to describe his aesthetic approach as "post-relevance." When pageviews and other data-driven metrics become the measure of success, it's easy to conflate the popular with the good.
"The economy of the Internet basically amounts to how much can you get people to click on your stuff," he says, mentioning an incident when a New Yorker editor requested that he insert a Miley Cyrus reference into the first sentence of an article. "It becomes an issue of those things crowding out things that might require a great deal of explaining or contextualization before people begin to appreciate it. And there's no greater victim than the novel."
Private Citizens' satirical bite isn't meant to merely ridicule the you'll-never-believe-what-happens-next degradation of literary culture at the hands of the Internet. It's "to boost or pick up things that are not as easily packaged in the form of content," Tulathimutte says. Drowning in porn or struggling to get funding for legitimate scientific research that won't enrich anyone, his characters are lovable — or lovably hateable — misfits in their world. And it is a shrinking world.
"Something that makes you sit by yourself for 12 hours and is not about something that's going on around you in the world at that moment is a tough sell in this culture," Tulathimutte says. Or, as one character finds out when she ironically plays at homelessness, you can't fall asleep in Dolores Park when the newspapers are too thin to keep you warm.