Gunning for the Zeitgeist
How the quest for the big message novel keeps selling characters short.
Years ago, a friend of mine attended a reggae concert where the lead singer asked the crowd, “Who wants to hear a song about Rodney King?” The crowd screamed “Yeah!” but the singer wasn’t satisfied. “I can’t hear you! Who wants to hear a song about Rodney King?” More yells, shouts, enthusiasm, but not enough. This went on for several minutes. Finally, when the crowd was going wild, the singer began: “R-r-r-rodney King, Rodney King, Rodney King, Rodney King!” Those were the lyrics to the entire song.
That story came to mind often as I was reading Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings (Riverhead, $28), a very ambitious, decades-spanning novel that wears its pop-cultural significance with the awkward self-consciousness of a rapper in a jacket made of hundred-dollar bills. In The Interestings, Wolitzer aims to explore what happens to creative kids with big dreams as they grow older and must contend with electric bills and chronic depression and young children on the autism spectrum. The result is a rephrasing of Langston Hughes’s immortal question “What happens to a dream deferred?”—but sent through Louis C.K.’s White-People Problems transmogrifier. Rather than drying up like a raisin in the sun, upper-middle-class white people’s dreams seem to sit and gather dust amid the noise and clutter of a mundane life, like a piece of indigenous art from a country they’ve never visited, displayed to make them seem more interesting than they actually are.
The book’s protagonist, Jules Jacobson, spends a lifetime trying to convince herself and others that she’s more interesting than she actually