Joanna Smith Rakoff

in conversation with Alex Shephard

Joanna Smith Rakoff’s 2009 debut A Fortunate Age is one of the best novels about being in your twenties in New York City in recent memory. Perhaps more importantly, the novel, which follows five graduates of my and Rakoff’s alma mater, Oberlin College, is about trying to figure out what exactly one does after college. For Rakoff’s characters, as Edan Lepucki (whom we will speak with later in the week) writes in The Millions, “college was a time when they could easily devote themselves to art, and remain socially conscious; their passions did not yet have to be negotiated with the sobering realities of the working world. And the characters are cognizant, even occasionally pained by, this shift.”
I spoke with Rakoff in late December about her novel, the similarities between her generation and mine, and the best books she read in 2010.

A Fortunate Age is loosely-based on Mary McCarthy’s The Group, but you also draw a number of parallels to Victorian and pre-Victorian literature – especially the Brontës. What influence did 19th century literature have on you or, for that matter, the novel?

They had a huge influence on me. I was one of those kids that had no friends and just sat in the closet in my bedroom and read. And thus read all those books that you read as a kid. …. I fantasized about being Jane Eyre and all of that. As a child, I played out my life in my head. My interior life was more exciting than my outer life, in which I was bullied horribly by really mean and stupid kids. ….
One of the motivating forces of the book was thinking about Madame Bovary and Flaubert in general. …. About the way our life would be unbearable without culture, without literature and films and This American Life and Mad Men. We need fictions to understand our world, but there’s a way that fiction can harm us. We can feel so dissatisfied with our lives because they don’t quite measure up — which is very much what Madame Bovary and Sentimental Education are about.
As a grown-up, I don’t spend that much time wishing I was in a Jane Austen novel — although I do sometimes wish I lived in an E.M. Forster novel, but so does everyone. [laughs] When I was a bit younger, when I was in my 20s, I looked around and I did see difficulties that [some of my friends] were having, particularly in romantic areas, and feeling like they were having trouble living their lives because they were defining themselves through popular culture.

In college, I always rejected this distinction between college and the quote-unquote real world, but in your novel and other so-called “post-campus” novels, characters are unable to let go of college because it was the last time they weren’t encumbered by responsibility. To a number of characters in A Fortunate Age, for instance, Oberlin is Utopian, even Edenic.

Absolutely. When I first started the novel, the characters went to a fictional college. But after a while I changed my mind and decided they would go to Oberlin [because] I didn’t want there to be noise after it was published —“It’s a fictional version of Oberlin!” — as happened in the ’80s with Bret Easton Ellis and in the ’90s with Donna Tartt, when there was so much trying to guess who was who. So I decided to have it set [at Oberlin], and then I realized that Oberlin is the perfect school to talk about that kind of disillusionment because it is actually really Utopian. You’re in this beautiful little tiny town; it’s idyllic; there’s not much crime; you can run around in the street naked and call it performance art and people will think it’s hilarious, but no one is going to attack you. You can do whatever you want because it’s a very safe place, both psychologically and physically. But then when you move to New York, which is not a safe place in any way, it can be really shocking.

A Fortunate Age seems to be a coming-of-age novel except that, instead of being adolescents, your characters are in their 20s. My generation has certainly taken some lumps for supposedly living in a state of perpetual adolescence, for not taking up any mantle of responsibility. But your characters seem to go through the same crisis of maturity that we’re supposedly going through.

That was certainly a charge that was lobbed against my generation. There were all these articles when I was probably your age, maybe a little older, that were all like “WHY ARE YOUNG PEOPLE TODAY INFANTILIZING THEMSELVES?” That was in every magazine. Even in fashion there was a trend in the late 90s where women would wear little tiny baby barrettes and have little tiny bangs – they would actually look like children. ….
I’ll say one very general thing, and this may sound very strange, but I think there are enormous similarities between your specific generation – as in people who are say, 22-25, your very specific micro-generation – and mine. And then there are a group of people in between who are very different, who, let’s say, graduated during a boom time and left college expecting that they were going to get high-paying jobs and make a lot of money. They grew up and graduated with a sense of security and have very different attitudes towards money and success and arts and culture and technology and the world in general.
A lot of the people I know who graduated during a boom time almost feel like mini forty-five-year-olds. They may be twenty-eight or thirty, but they seem like they’re forty-five because they’re talking about retirement funds or buying co-ops in Brooklyn Heights or getting married and having children younger than I would have ever imagined.
The economy was one thing that kept people in my generation feeling like adolescents. We graduated from college and there were no jobs. …. That’s what it was like for everyone. My friends were moving to San Francisco and making a living tending bar, or working at coffee shops – some of my friends even sold t-shirts on Fisherman’s Wharf… They did things that middle class adolescents would do to make money — except the tending bar part. [laughs] And I think that that shapes the way that you think about yourself. …. There’s a sense that they, unlike the generation ahead of them and behind them, think of themselves as being eternally mutable and young. I can’t decide if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.

One important difference between the generation that you chronicle in A Fortunate Age and mine, however, is the importance of the internet. Technology alone would fundamentally alter the novel if it was set even six years later.

Exactly. My editor is a little younger than I am – she’s in her early thirties. Early in the book there’s a party scene and two people lose each other. [And one of her notes was] “how could they do that? Why didn’t they just call each other on their phones?” When we were going through the edits, I said, “in early 1999 everyone didn’t have a cell phone.” And she was like, “really?” A lot of people did, but definitely not everyone…. She couldn’t remember a time when everyone didn’t have a cell phone! [laughs] It’s true that it would be completely different. The huge thing that would be different, of course, is the economy. The characters’ struggles would be very different.

They wouldn’t even have jobs to complain about.

Exactly! [laughs]

After about one-hundred pages I started hoping you would reveal how to emerge from your twenties unscathed, but that never happens. What works for some of your characters destroys others. And, aside from the smug, self-righteous Caitlin Greene, you resist the urge to satirize your characters in A Fortunate Age.

It’s something I thought very consciously about — the extent to which the novel was going to be satirical. My first draft was much more vicious, much more in keeping with The Group. I haven’t read this, but I’ve been told that one of the major critical perspectives on [A Fortunate Age] was that I’m not as good a satirist as Mary McCarthy, that the novel wasn’t mean enough. …. But I was strangely not bothered by [that] at all, because I made a very deliberate choice. I had a couple of people read that first draft and I took a long time off …. and then did a massive rewrite. I made a conscious decision to soften the satire; I thought of it as subtly satirical. [laughs] I didn’t want to be passing judgment on the characters, but to simply present them as they were. Once I made that choice, things began to fall into place. I was no longer punishing characters. The plot changed really dramatically in that second draft, in part because I wasn’t trying to give people their just ends. ….
In a strange way, retreating from overt satire allowed me to make the characters more horrible. It allowed me to let them hang themselves.

While September 11th factors into A Fortunate Age, the novel doesn’t revolve around the attacks the way most other “post-9/11 novels” do. How did you approach 9/11 and how do you feel about other 9/11 novels?

While I was working on the novel, I mostly tried to avoid them. Some sounded annoying to me. And then there were some that I was interesting in reading, but I consciously avoided because I worried they would influence my own novel. People kept saying that [The Emperor’s Children] sounds so much like [my] novel, so I avoided it until some months after I was done. I love it, of course, and I could see why people kept telling me it sounded like A Fortunate Age—bourgeois young people in New York around the turn of the last century—but it’s also very different in many ways, including the way Messud handles September 11, which is to say, in a much more straightforward, dramatic way than did I.

But of the novels that address September 11, I most love Netherland. That was one of those novels that made me think, “I wish I had written this!”

What are you working on now?

I’m working on two different things: a new novel, which is kind of huge, and a non-fiction book, which will partly be about my family and partly be about the psychology of secrecy and trauma. The novel, as I said, is kind of massive and encompasses many years, many different plot threads, and five main characters. At the center is a conservative professor—he’s basically a neo-con–a German-Jewish émigré, who started a communist magazine in the 1940s and in the 1970s swung dramatically to the right in terms of his politics…. My character teaches at a fictional college somewhat modeled after Bard — so a left-wing college with a wealthy student body. It takes place in the 90s–during the rise political correctness–and he, of course, gets embroiled in a fiasco on campus. It also follows his assistant and [the professor’s] three children: a son, who’s also conservative but breaks from him, and a daughter who’s very left-wing, works for an NGO and gets embroiled in [a conflict] in a fictional African country, and the oldest, who leaves her husband and moves in with him. So it follows them over the course of a year.

What were the best books you read in 2010?

This is a really strange reading year for me, because normally I do a really heavy volume of reviewing — so I’m reading tons and tons of new books–but this year I didn’t do quite as much for different reasons. …. Right now I have a stack of the new books I wanted to read by the side of my bed. My plan is to read as many as I can in the next week. Right now I’m reading The Imperfectionists, which I love.
I did a huge amount of obligation reading this year:  friends’ books, books by people with whom I was reading or speaking at the zillion literary festivals I went to, books I’d agreed to blurb — a bizarre thing in and of itself — and, mostly, books submitted for an award I was judging.
I didn’t read that many new books, but I did read Freedom and A Visit From the Goon Squad and, without going on and on about it, I loved both of them, even more than I expected to, which is saying a lot. Another novel I loved—unexpectedly–was Christie Hodgen’s Elegies for the Broken Hearted, which I reviewed for [The New York Times.] It’s written in the form of elegies for different people in this woman’s life. That sounds annoying and gimmicky and I thought I was going to hate it. But I loved it, mainly because there’s a kind of raw anger in the novel that permeates the writer’s language.

Did you read any older books this year?

I read more older books than new books. …. I did a lot of re-reading, both for pieces I was writing and to help me think through my new novel. There are certain novels, in particular, that I read over and over: Dawn Powell’s A Time to Be Born, Laurie Colwin’s Family Happiness — [which is a] a very strange novel; a tale of the haute bourgeoisie that ultimately proves deeply subversive about human relationships and the nature of love, in a manner similar to certain French films of the 1970s and 80s — Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, Alison Lurie’s Foreign Affairs, Howards End, certain essays in Meghan Daum’s collection My Misspent Youth and in Joan Didion’s Slouching Toward Bethlehem. This year, I read all of these, as I tried to pin down the voice and tone of the new novel, as well as the way the structure will work. In terms of all that obligation reading: I was pleased and surprised to discover a novel that I’d missed when it came out, Sharon Pomerantz’ rich, idiosyncratic, 19th-century-style bildungsroman Rich Boy, which reads rather like George Eliot possessed by the ghost of Saul Bellow. My fellow judges and I chose it as the winner of this year’s Goldberg Prize. Finally, perhaps the most exciting novel I read this year was Jay McInerney’s Brightness Falls, which I turned to at the suggestion of Gary Shteyngart. …. Whatever one might think about McInerney …. it’s a brilliant novel of manners, seriously masterful.

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