Joanna Smith Rakoff’s debut novel plays a neat trick: To tell the story of a group of Oberlin graduates, from their move to New York City in the mid-’90s to the brink of midlife, she updates — by chapter, by scene, by character — Mary McCarthy’s 1954 novel, The Group, about a group (of course) of Vassar graduates coming of age in the ’30s. It would be a distraction from Rakoff’s own fine novel to enumerate each and every point of contrast, but these allusive layers shimmer out on each page, lending a sense of timelessness and historical context to her story of a very recent past.
It’s not necessary to read one to appreciate the other, but for those who, as I did, read the two novels back to back, each of Rakoff’s pages comes with loaded with suspense: What could unsettle a contemporary man as much as a gay co-worker making a pass at him would have done in the 1930s? (The answer: being hit on by a “slate-haired middle-management” grammarian, making stodgy middle-aged women today’s most unlikely partner for a young, virile guy.) What sex act could seem as taboo to modern readers as the mere act of a woman having — and enjoying! — sex outside of marriage did to McCarthy’s readers? (I’ll leave you guessing.) McCarthy’s WASPs looked down on the allegedly overambitious Jews of their day, and the woman who marries a rich Jew does so precisely to commit an act of social transgression; in contrast, most of Rakoff’s characters are Jewish, and in a delicious twist, the woman who wishes to shock her parents does so by forgoing her “nice Jewish boy” for a Pakistani programmer who works for Google.
The selection of the college is situational — like McCarthy, Rakoff chose to describe graduates of her own alma mater — but Oberlin is a nearly perfect analogue to the women’s colleges of the ’30s. Those women came away from their education conscious of their privilege as a tiny elite and thus, perhaps, too self-conscious about their alleged duty to make good on that privilege by role-modeling the admirable life of an educated woman. Today, Oberlin is known for producing graduates who are inculcated with the usual ambitions of liberal arts colleges everywhere but tempered with a perhaps too self-conscious mandate to make good on their privilege by finding politically useful, ethically sound, intellectually challenging work.
Rakoff’s group — comprising both women and men and including a successful actor, a failed actor, two grad students, a poet turned business writer, and a concert pianist turned rocker — are shining examples of the well-educated, urban bohemian “creative class” that is often given credit for running the cultural motor of the last decade and a half. They have the casual sense of security that comes from having always received exactly what they need:
With their shimmering hair and bright, clear eyes, they, all of them, were the dewy flowers of the upper middle class and, as such, were raised in needlessly large houses with a surplus of bathrooms and foodstuffs in the fridge, with every convenience, every luxury, every desire met.
This leads them, initially, to disdain materialism as a relic of their “brash bourgeois parents” and proclaim their interest in art, “though they never would have put it like that.”
How they would put it is that they are readers of The New York Review of Books, The Atlantic, and later writers for Salon and Slate and various New Economy magazines; they joke about Derrida and Hume and Lacan and New Criticism and watch Godard and Fellini and Bergman at the Film Forum. They colonize their formerly seedy neighborhoods of Astoria, Queens, and Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and declare themselves “old-timers” after a year, in contrast to the “trust-fund kids who moved here, like a week ago.” (This last is said by a woman living, of course on her husband’s trust fund and who is, to be fair, a villain.)
What they have instead of money, then, is a carefully demarcated — and viciously policed — world of taste. It may come as no surprise to contemporary readers that the habit of McCarthy’s Helena — to place words in inverted commas to denote ironic distance — has infected just about every character in Rakoff’s version. When things are going well, they see themselves as characters in good works of literature and film (Little Women or The Forsyte Saga) or beloved pop icons; to convey affection, one boyfriend tells a girl she “looks like Holly Hobbie”…. Their worst fear is being seen as unoriginal, and they have a horror of clich?s. A mental hospital is described as nothing like The Bell Jar or Girl, Interrupted. A woman is dismayed to discover a poignant scene in her own life looks like “something out of a Julia Roberts movie,” and a woman who describes her irresistible animal attraction to another woman’s husband is dismissed as parroting “something out of Danielle Steel.” Hell, one character is even shamed for reading Bridget Jones’s Diary.
This group, in other words, is the kind that fetishizes the “original” to such an extent that they often look quite a bit alike. Despite their rebellious stance, they are, on the whole, awfully good kids. While one may spot trust-funders with heroin habits on the outskirts of their parties, they do not mix with the group, who tend towards classic cocktails that match their vintage ’60s cocktail dresses and the evening glass of good wine. A rock star sleeps in a pup tent in his band’s rehearsal space but finds it “barbaric” that his girlfriend keeps her phone on the floor and remedies the problem by gifting her a tile-topped phone table.
Rakoff, on the whole, is gentler with her characters than was McCarthy, whose satire seethed on most every page. While Rakoff’s Sadie, the daughter of a wealthy Upper East Side socialite who ends up a stay-at-home mother married to a venture capitalist, seems to be the most sharp-eyed and reasonable of her characters, it’s the two villains that stand out most: Tuck, the bad husband, is the kind of guy who cares more about being seen as a writer than doing the actual work of writing, but he doesn’t mind blaming his wife for the inevitable consequences of his own laziness. Tuck’s mistress and partner in crime, Caitlin Green-Gold, takes the brunt of the satire aimed at politically minded but vastly privileged urbanites: The aforementioned woman living in Williamsburg on her husband’s trust fund, she is a militant vegan who excoriates her friends as materialists, names her dog Mumia, and claims that, because “Jews were the original persons of color,” its totally cool for her to speak for the rest of her brothers and sisters in oppression.
Not surprisingly, Rakoff’s novel has been compared to the classic New York coming-of-age novels — McInerney, McCarthy, and more recently Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children — and no doubt, there have been plenty of novels trickling out each season that cover more or less the same demographic. This may as well be the point where I admit that as a graduate of a small liberal arts college in the mid-’90s who lives in Brooklyn and worked for Salon, it’s a demographic I know quite well. But while Rakoff catalogues a group of people who have been furiously and self-consciously dissecting their own for a while now, she does it with such grace, and from just the right amused distance, that it seems wholly her own and — dare I say it? — original.