In her provocative 2012 New York Times essay, “The Second Shelf,” Meg Wolitzer reflects on the conditions that surround the publication of women’s fiction: namely, the editorial and marketing strategies that position women’s books and shape readers’ expectations of them. “Women who write literary fiction,” she reflects, “frequently find themselves in an unjust world … when we talk about today’s leading novelists – the ones who generate heat and conversation and are read by both men and women – we are talking mostly about men.” Wolitzer has good reason to wonder about the impact of gender on the publishing world, an issue that’s “raised temperatures” in the news of late. (Wikipedia was discovered just last week “redistributing” women novelists to a “subset” category, making their “American Novelists” listing homogenously male.)
Having written nine novels over the past 20 years (in addition to a few young adult and nonfiction works), Wolitzer’s repertoire has generally formed around the peculiarity and inconstancy of our most private spheres: our homes and relationships, the complexities of intimacy, our identities behind closed doors. It’s not too much to say that she’s been channeled as a writer for women, though her work is often incisive, sometimes even downright cutting, ambitious in scope, and driven by a peculiarly earnest irony in her descriptions of the tandem paths men and women follow in a state of ongoing incomprehension.
A wily intelligence underscores her fiction – she’s a smart aleck hiding in elegant prose – and with her impressive sixth novel, “The Interestings,” Meg Wolitzer may finally get the wider acclaim she deserves. “The Interestings” will be called Wolitzer’s “cross-over” novel (however paradoxical that may be): a big book that’s sure to generate “heat” in readers of all kinds. Self-consciously inclusive, and attenuated firmly to contemporary Americana, “The Interestings” can be characterized by its overarching sweep in its effort to follow the lives of six young friends from their first meeting at a camp for the artistically gifted, through the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s – into the new century – and their middle age.
There’s Ethan Figman, budding animator. Ash Wolf, playwright. Her brother, Goodman Wolf, whose striking physique fails to translate into impressive talent. Jonah Bay, musician. Cathy Kiplinger, dancer. The lens of the book, Julie (Jules) Jacobson, actress wanna-be (anything wanna-be) spends the largest portion of the novel – even while a student at the University at Buffalo – trying to parse precisely what her talent is, and whether she has any at all.
At an impressionable age, and in a fit of punky humor (naturally accompanied by a covert round of vodka and Tang), the group dubs themselves “The Interestings”: a last-ditch effort at self-glorification, Wolitzer warns us, before adolescence evaporates into adulthood and the teenagers’ collective hopes for their artistic ambitions are tested. By Page Two, the novel’s nostalgic tone – an atmosphere of sepia-tinted moodiness – is as much a character in the book as the youngsters who perform against its backdrop, already sensing the inevitable challenges and contradictions that will soon impact both their public and private lives, offsetting any hope for ongoing conceit. Yet the name “the Interestings” bonds them in ways they can’t predict and Wolitzer, an impeccable social observer, unfolds their futures carefully, peeling back their secrets to expose their sensitive, hidden chokes: those crucial moments– the “moments of strangeness,” Wolitzer calls them – when life presents an inevitable, unsettling crucible that changes each character in unforeseeable ways.
There are hurdles for “the Interestings” – plenty of them – even if they’re of a particularly First World, New York City microcosmic order. Wolitzer’s capaciousness enables her, over the course of almost 500 pages, to create an unexpected cultural ensemble of complex, life-changing struggle: her characters (and their extended families) experience rape, substance abuse, religious cults and child endangerment, as well as ongoing medical strife (clinical depression, cancer, HIV and autism-spectrum disorder), while the world evolves alongside them, revealing the AIDS epidemic, the changing face of technology, industrialized child labor and terrorism.
If art is distinctly shaped by the culture from which it arises (as Jorge Luis Borges once famously posed), Wolitzer has taken this cue to remind her readers of our ongoing daily negotiation of life’s biggest questions, without making the complexity of the concepts she handles – her list of grievances against time, nature and biology – ever seem baggy or cherry-picked. She juggles with daring precision, adding each new piece to the rotation with athletic grace, all of it in the air at once. “The Interestings” is a big book. Yet it remains astonishingly mobile and light.
If the concept of artistic talent, around which the book is founded with single-minded intensity, seems an immodest framework, given the weight of the many issues Wolitzer brings to bear, it should be noted that, quietly – modestly! – “talent” slowly emerges in the novel as something of a cultural ruse. While the book pretends to be about a desire for artistry, in the end “talent” serves as an evident substitute for its more tolerable cousin, “specialness.” Indeed, Ash Wolf’s mild, feminist plays are reviewed generously, but never seem to acquire notability (her real talent, it finally becomes clear, is parenting her autistic child).
Jonah gives up his music early on after his lyricism is abused by an aging male folk singer. Of the so-called “Interestings,” only cartoonist Ethan achieves any success. Yet even he gets lost in the “business” of serialization. None of the cast, in short, ever quite gasps the stakes of “art” – the thing they want, but, in “wanting,” cannot have.
Like Virginia Woolf’s “The Waves” – a similar, six- person novel that follows characters from childhood to old age, after which Wolitzer’s novel is surely patterned (one can only assume that “The Interestings’” most polarizing characters, Ash and Goodman Wolf, are in fact named after the ground-breaking British author to showcase this relationship) – Wolitzer interrogates the nature of identity, friendship and class. “The Interestings” are about as close as any group of friends can be. They keep each other’s secrets. Financially and emotionally support each other. Date each other. Envy each other. And – as it turns out – violently hurt each other.
But where Woolf was interested in interiority, in exploring difference – the “unknowability” a close group of friends might experience even after many years – Wolitzer’s book is distinctly a 21st century American enterprise in its emphasis on connection and dysfunction: in creating constellations of big ideas around characters who lack a depth of vision to understand them. In short, Wolitzer is asking tenacious questions of her distinctly contemporary audience: What do we mean by “talent?” Why do we cultivate it? Desire it? What use is “talent” in daily life? How might “talent” in fact be obstructive, a thorn in one’s life, that prevents the honest living of it?
Wolitzer’s book, in other words, seems aimed to provoke readers to ask these kinds of existential question of themselves, who may, like Jules Jacobson, fail to realize what makes them special and, so, get lost in the specialness of others. At the end of the day, “The Interestings” is not a book about artistry. Rather, it seems targeted at readers who have gotten close enough to works of art to be smitten, to feel their cheeks get hot – and who may yet come to see simple appreciation as an art form in its own right too. As Jules Jacobson’s husband angrily tells her in the last leg of the novel – finally fed up with his wife’s romanticization of the group’s uneven gifts – her friends aren’t really “that interesting. Most people aren’t talents. So what are they supposed to do – kill themselves?” A vigilant energy gives “The Interestings” its architecture without weighing it in earnest psychological drama (though there’s plenty of it) or conceptual musing (though there’s plenty of that too). If occasionally the reader hopes for a more aggressive treatment of the concepts Wolitzer puts on display, we’re often reminded that the book is about daily, lived experience, and the ways in which significant, high concept drama impacts our lives – even when we’re unaware of it, or lack a philosophical toolkit to parse out its meaning with Wolitzer’s noteworthy elegance.
The relevance of “The Interestings” can’t be overestimated. After all, when the Bush family emails were hacked in February 2013, leaking former President George W. Bush’s art to the world – the now infamous self-portraits in his bath and his shower – 43’s interest in painting was met with astonishment. Apparently, even the (once) most powerful man in the world, a notoriously undiscerning figure, secretly yearned for artistic talent. Wolitzer’s novel interrogates this ongoing fascination – why, in our practical, multi-tasking culture we still want to stand out. To be “interesting.”
By Meg Wolitzer
480 pages, $27.95
Christina Milletti is a professor of English at the University at Buffalo.