Private Citizens follows four recent Stanford Grads out of the ivory tower and into the wilds of a Bay Area disfigured by tech companies. Stanford students, we learn, are like ducks: “tranquil on the surface but paddling furiously to keep afloat.” As the characters haplessly pursue various fulfillments—sex, professional dignity, political purpose, venture capital—Tulathimutte’s manic, unsparing, and entertaining narrations reveal the psychic turmoil below each outwardly tranquil surface.
Tony Tulathimutte’s short fiction has won an O. Henry award; his writing has appeared in n+1, VICE, Salon, The New Yorker, AGNI, Threepenny Review, Los Angeles Review of Books, and other places.
Tony Tulathimutte: In 2008 I was cash flush and loathed myself and everything I’d written. I had a book of short stories that were decently written, but had something queasily embarrassing and juvenile in common: The protagonists were such good people. It wasn’t that they were flawless Mary Sues, but they were possessed of such admirable core qualities that their flaws were eminently forgivable: a fame-hungry bulimic, a hardass father drying out his pillhead son, a figure-skating prodigy who falls on purpose to terminate her secret pregnancy. They would usually be less well-to-do, less educated, less self-aware, in far greater suffering, usually female. Their relative simplicity was rationalized by their youth, and any misbehavior was justified by their hard circumstances. And if the reader still didn’t like them, at least I could avoid being identified with them: They were white.
The effect of these stories was to instill in readers a feeling somewhere between pity and tenderness, a tingling confidence that they were better, kinder people for having spent a time visiting the less fortunate, and by extension, gratitude for an author who really got people different from himself, who you might want to date and publish.
And publish I did! With a few modest tokens of legitimacy in hand, it took some time to accept how much effort I was spending trying to convince people—myself included—that I had the talent and compassion to see the innate humanness in people very different from me. That is, I wanted to prove through my “good” characters that I was good. Inwardly I convinced myself that, by reaching across identity boundaries and beyond my privileges, I was spurning “self-indulgence” and instead striving for depth, warmth, universality, even truth. Yet what’s faker than trying to pass off vanity as compassion?
Even then I was secretly disdainful of this approach, the clear sense that in doing all this admirable empathy-work, the author expects a sugar cookie and a pat on the head. It’s what makes me cringe when I read a comfortable gentile’s grotesque Holocaust fiction, for example—however heartfelt their empathy may be, they’re still co-opting a form of suffering they’ll never be exposed to, and usually getting deafening praise for it.