Adam and Cynthia Morey, the protagonists of The Privileges, are rich and happy. It says something about our culture’s attitudes toward money that a less promising premise for a novel can hardly be imagined. Just as the supposed sexual revolution hardly disrupted the double standard for male versus female promiscuity, the age of economic exuberance that followed did little to sort out the conflicted feelings we have about wealth. “I’ll buy you a diamond ring my friend if it makes you feel all right,” the Beatles sang, before telling us in the next breath that “money can’t buy me love.” The commercials for Mastercard—a tool designed to encourage us to spend more than we have—remind us of all the things that are “priceless.” And the dot-com CEO has replaced Gordon Gekko as the current model of super-wealth, but even the most philanthropic of today’s billionaires is still the proverbial camel trying to pass through the eye of a needle.
So it is jarring at first to be presented with a couple who unabashedly crave wealth but who nonetheless come off as unexceptional people—different from the rest of us only in that, as Hemingway once put it, they have more money. But Jonathan Dee’s trenchant novel keeps things interesting with its relentless focus on not only what money does but also what it means—as a social signifier, an instrument of power, an agent of change, an expression of love. From the very first scene, Cynthia and Adam’s wedding day, Dee uses money, and the way in which they relate to it, as the measure for his characters. In an early manipulation that results in immediate financial gain, Cynthia has chosen to have the wedding in unglamorous Pittsburgh, where her mother has moved after her remarriage to a wealthier man. (He “expressed himself by opening up his checkbook, a consequence, to tell the truth, of which Cynthia had not been unmindful.”) Cynthia reflects early on that “she wasn’t completely sure why the idea should appeal to her at all—the big schmaltzy wedding, the sort of wedding for which everyone would have to make travel plans—but she didn’t make a habit of questioning her wants.” Neither she nor Adam will ever make a habit of that sort of self-investigation, and they wind up none the worse for it. Their solipsism is a little bewildering, but it has a certain purity.
The night before the wedding, Adam dreams of driving a car without a steering wheel, which for anyone else might be a sign of anxiety. But Adam, it turns out, doesn’t need a steering wheel: the car responds “to his slightest weight shifts, like a skateboard or sled.” Such is the supreme confidence of his worldview, a confidence that never stalls. In the next chapter, which fast-forwards six years to find them installed with two kids on the Upper East Side, he moves to a private equity firm, dissatisfied with the speed of his advancement at Morgan Stanley. “He and Cynthia had a vivid faith in their own future, not as a variable but as a destination; all the glimpses New York afforded of the lives led by the truly successful, the arcane range of their experiences, aroused in the two of them less envy than impatience.” Or, as Cynthia thinks as she contemplates the trophy wife of Adam’s boss, “There was rich and there was rich.”
Dee brilliantly deploys novelistic details to track the progress of Adam and Cynthia’s prosperity. Cynthia suffers a depression provoked in part by a stressful episode in which she loses the children—April and Jonas—on the subway; by the time the kids are teenagers, she has a car and a driver. From a two-bedroom on the Upper East Side they move to a duplex overlooking the Museum of Natural History and finally to a townhouse, the province of New York’s uppermost echelon. Once they were happy to vacation at resorts in Costa Rica, but eventually they rent a house complete with servants in Anguilla, where Adam needs to travel regularly in order to keep an eye on his offshore accounts. Given to recklessness and eager to provide for his family in ever greater measure, he takes up insider trading—but even this turn in the plot, for which Adam should by all rights be disgraced, ends with him ahead. His scheme, he tells himself at one point, “wasn’t about being rich per se. It was about living a big life, a life that was larger than life. Money was just the instrument.”
The only signs of self-consciousness about the family’s eventually astronomical wealth come from the children, who, as Cynthia’s stepsister angrily remarks, grow up “like a little ruling class.” April, as she gets older, turns hedonistic, blowing money on clubbing and drugs and then relying on her parents to hush things up when she is involved in a drug-influenced car accident. Jonas, a couple years younger, is more conflicted. As a child, he is chagrined by Cynthia’s extravagant gestures, her material exuberance, such as buying him all the books in a series he covets: “It was almost more fun not to have them yet—to know they existed out there somewhere and waited patiently to be found. He didn’t know how to tell her this.” In high school, he becomes obsessed with artistic authenticity, blowing off the cover band he plays in (named The Privileges, in an attempt at “preemptive irony” on the part of the elite-prep-school members) to sit at home listening to Alan Lomax records: “It was too hard to believe there was such a thing as not even caring, not bothering to distinguish in terms of value between the simulated and the real.” And in college, under the influence of his girlfriend, he becomes obsessed with outsider art and the question of how to value it, aesthetically and monetarily. (Meanwhile his sister, dismayed by his shabby apartment, buys him a Picasso in a particularly in-your-face gesture.)
Is there anything that money can’t buy? By the end of the novel, when Cynthia not only pays off the board of a hospice in return for a spot for her dying father but then bribes his girlfriend to disappear and leave Cynthia alone with him for his last few days, it seems as if the answer to that question—at least for the Moreys—might be no. Cynthia’s gesture, of course, is horrifyingly cold, and the unflinching way in which she regards her father’s companion as merely a problem that money can solve is a sign of her fundamental inhumanity. “I would imagine that you, an older woman with no visible means of support … are thinking that your years of devotion to this fun guy with the rich daughter, if you can hang in there until the end, deserve some recompense,” Cynthia tells the other woman. “And I, I would like you to go away and let me have this little bit of time alone with him…. I feel like I can see a way for these desires to dovetail nicely.”) Yet the novel not only refuses to judge Cynthia, it actually supports her actions. For the other woman, it turns out, is willing to be bought. At first she is offended, but it takes only a moment for her to name her price.
Things don’t go as smoothly for Jonas, who discovers in the outsider artist the novel’s one true villain: a person to whom money means absolutely nothing. In another novel—perhaps even in the real world—such a person, unbribeable and uninfluenceable, might be a hero. But the most grievous sin in the world of the Moreys (and there is something eel-like about them) is disinterest in the pleasure of a person you love—which is perhaps the one thing that money can most consistently buy. These people are not cynics: they know the value of everything, not just the price. Or at least its value to them.
Adam and Cynthia are painfully limited by their own wants, and the novel, by stubbornly refusing to escape from their force field, likewise limits its own reach. The Privileges is like a Chuck Close painting, so intimate with its characters that it is almost impossible for the observer to maintain a critical detachment from them. And yet, by virtue of who they are and what they do, it is equally impossible not to do so. The novel generates its power through its sheer slipperiness: it offers no signposts for moral judgment. “All the display wasn’t for anybody else’s benefit.” Jonas explains to a professor who asks him about a party his father threw for his mother at the New York Public Library. “It was for her…. That’s the real context of everything they do—each other. The other stuff is just kind of outside the walls.” Are these people irredeemable solipsists, with their exclusive focus on each other’s needs and wants? Or is their worldview closer to our reality than we’d like to admit?
Shaken after a near disaster, Jonas reflects that the drive to accumulate wealth is something like the arms race: there can never be too much of it, “because it wasn’t about need, it was about feeling safe in the world, and were you ever going to feel as safe as you needed to feel? No.” Perhaps the most satisfying thing about The Privileges is the way Dee lets us see the way his characters negotiate their complicated relationships with money, which after all is something we all must constantly negotiate, no matter how much or how little of it we have. The Moreys may not realize it, but what they talk about when they talk about money turns out to be just about everything.
Ruth Franklin is a senior editor at The New Republic.