sexta-feira, 24 de janeiro de 2014
Total Family Breakdown, 21st-Century Manhattan Style
By MARIA RUSSO
THIS BEAUTIFUL LIFE
By Helen Schulman
222 pp. Harper/HarperCollins Publishers. $24.99.
Helen Schulman’s latest novel tells the story of the Bergamots, a family of four whose expensive new Manhattan life comes crashing down when 15-year-old Jake forwards to a friend a sexually explicit video made for him, unsolicited, by a 13-year-old girl named Daisy Cavanaugh. As the video, forwarded again and again, goes viral, the tabloid media go bananas, linking Jake and Daisy in an ominous and humiliating celebrity. What can the future hold for unformed, vulnerable kids who bumble their way into the lowliest realm of the permanent record that is the Internet? (Or, in Daisy’s case, reach it by simulating sex with a toy baseball bat.) Should their parents be held responsible, or are they equally victimized by the seductions and traps of digital life?
These are among the anxious, perhaps as yet unanswerable questions that propel Schulman’s riveting narrative. To call “This Beautiful Life” timely is almost an understatement, since real life regularly generates plenty of clueless but weirdly understandable behavior like that of Schulman’s characters. Yet as much as this book fiercely inhabits our shared online reality, it operates most powerfully on a deeper level, posing an enduring question about American values — is it worth leaving a perfectly good life to grab a chance for something more?
In the immediate aftermath of the video’s release, Jake is suspended from his Riverdale private school, spending long days at home in a self-loathing funk. Richard, his father, is forced to take a leave of absence from his new job in the administration at a Columbia-like university, where he is spearheading a project to claim “blighted” uptown blocks for an extended campus. Liz, Jake’s mother, who hasn’t worked much since finishing her art history Ph.D., is plunged by the family’s debacle into her own Internet-enabled dysfunction, obsessively following the blog of an ex-boyfriend, endlessly watching Daisy’s video, going down the rabbit hole of Internet porn. Liz accidentally leaves Daisy’s video open, where it’s seen by the baby of the family, irrepressible Coco, adopted from China, who promptly re-enacts Daisy’s wild sexual dance at her pricey kindergarten. It’s a total family breakdown, 21st-century Manhattan style.
“Nothing goes away now,” Richard’s boss tells him. “Forgetting is over.” That’s hard for an old-school go-getter like Richard to understand: “There should be a service to suck this kind of stuff out; he’ll look into that.” Even more foreign is the privacy-allergic generational mindset in which the video was created and disseminated. As he visits a lawyer to try to fix the mess, Richard concedes that he “doubts his son has ever thought about confidentiality as a concept.” And yet Schulman is no Internet-age Cassandra. As in her previous novel, “A Day at the Beach,” in which the events of 9/11 set in motion another wealthy Manhattan family’s crisis, the book’s tragedy seems to have been in progress long before the precipitating events occur.
The dark heart of the story resides not in the lawless online ether but in the Bergamots’ status as strivers, outsiders to a ruthless world of money and privilege they aren’t emotionally equipped to navigate. Schulman smartly sets the novel in 2003, before rougher times hit even the high fliers, and her mockery of crass, restless New York City culture at the dawn of “this new moneyed century” is perfect. Liz, who grew up in the “hard, unyielding, concrete universe” of Co-op City, the Bronx, is unable to make real friends among the skinny, Botoxed Manhattan moms, with their drivers and decorators and art consultants, their “long, shiny, blown-out streaked hair” and skin of “pure leather.” Richard, who had a “simple and predictable and hard” upbringing in California, longs for advice about managing the family’s mess from his own dead father, an uneducated postal worker who had a “wisdom” that “golden boy” Richard, with his scholarship to Princeton, his Stanford M.B.A. and Ph.D., and his tireless drive for success, realizes he lacks.
Sensitive Jake, for his part, pines for a girl, Chinese-born, adopted Audrey, who is out of his league, the girlfriend of a “tall and blond” guy whom “you could kind of imagine in a suit someday.” Jake is overmatched by the city kids, most of whom are older because their parents held them back to get them “into a first-tier kindergarten.” They exchange clever jibes and spend weekend nights walking up and down Park Avenue, dropping into “ad hoc parties” in parent-free apartments. The boys face a confusing pressure to hook up with any girl who offers. When Jake is readmitted to school after the video debacle, he’s horrified to find himself embraced as an outlaw hero.
Richard and Liz were content back in Ithaca, where the compact pleasantness of daily rounds with her kids in “the cocoon of her car” made Liz feel “practically winged.” But they take for granted the appeal of ever upward mobility, ever more wealth, and the contradictory principles guiding their choices are largely unexamined. Richard has vowed to live a life of “public service — public service with money.” Liz has let her own career as an art historian slide as she enjoys the “luxury of time” (albeit defensively; she never imagined she’d be “dependent on a man for money”). Yet Liz is not, she ruefully admits, a better mother for having nothing else going.
Schulman somehow makes all these characters lovable, even when their least attractive qualities are on display. Perhaps most fascinating is “plump, prettyish” Daisy Cavanaugh, hovering throughout as both specter and spectacle, removed from school but ever present via her video. Her rich, neglectful parents’ enormous Riverdale house has “three glassy levels” that “seemed to rise out at some new angle to better capture a view of the Hudson.” Sad, needy, uncherished, she is nonetheless bizarrely empowered, a twisted update on that other Daisy in the novel’s most obvious predecessor.
Schulman has Jake read “The Great Gatsby” while he’s suspended from school, and he’s upset by the passage in which Fitzgerald calls Tom and Daisy Buchanan “careless people.” It should by rights apply to the Cavanaughs, and yet Jake knows he too has “smashed up things.” But it’s his unrequited crush, Audrey, who stands for what comes to seem truly out of Jake’s reach: a kind of purity. She decides to step away from “all the idiot boys,” away from the casually cruel social scene in which Jake and Daisy have lost their bearings. Her mystique has nothing to do with money or glamour: “He’d heard her parents were, like, old hippie social workers who had lived in Northampton or something, until they took her home from China.”
In an earlier era, a misstep in the sexual realm by a simple but aspiring guy like Jake would have ended bloodily, but “This Beautiful Life” presents a more ambiguous picture, befitting the new threats of the Internet age, when not necessarily homicide but social or career death seem to loom just a click away. Jake’s action in forwarding the video leads to consequences that are, if not truly tragic, immensely sad. Perhaps he’s best seen as a casualty not just of the Internet but of a time in which parents are unsure how to guide libidinous teenagers, whose natural tenderness is under assault as sexual mores change at a furious pace. Schulman hints that the most shocking thing about the video is that, for all its power to unravel the fragile Bergamots, in the grander scheme of things it’s not such a big deal. Daisy’s willingness to perform so vulnerably for Jake, although misguided, taps into a kind of desperate brio that our culture rewards. The epilogue gives us a glimpse of an older Daisy, and she’s not where we might imagine her to have landed. What if Daisy is an example to us all, here in pitiless postmodern America? Forgetting is over, but no one remembers that much either.
Maria Russo is a frequent contributor to the Book Review.
Posted by Francisco Augusto Vaz Brasil at 10:32