I don’t know if there’s a point where you can tell you’ve become an adult. I get glimpses of potential signs – my genuine interest in the real estate pages of the weekend newspaper, my growing embrace of dark chocolate, my relatively newfound ability to parallel park (though possibly not my giddy excitement about this fact) – but nothing specific and lasting that renders me a Real Functioning Grown-Up.
Joanna Rakoff’s book, A Fortunate Age, seems to encapsulate the very idea that ‘adulthood’ isn’t easily achieved or felt. Even getting married and having babies, milestones that seem unambiguously ‘grown up’ do not make you mature in Rakoff’s late-90s-to-early-00s New York world.
Curiously, Rakoff’s book was originally published in the US in 2009 but has only recently reached the shores of the UK and Australia following the relative success of her second book, My Salinger Year. While her second book was released as a memoir, the first is loosely autobiographical fiction. Like her set of protagonists, Rakoff is a graduate of Oberlin, a small liberal arts college in Ohio, in the first half of the nineties. After her graduation, she moved to New York to work at a literary agency, an occupation not dissimilar to those of her bookish characters.
Usually I’m not one to dwell on an author’s biography, ‘let the book speak for itself’ and all that. But the key strength of A Fortunate Age is its verisimilitude. Told in third person, the novel frequently changes perspective, and while Rakoff makes clear distinctions in the thought patterns of the main characters, all ring true. There’s a certain selfishness, a self-reproach for that selfishness, and mental blocks (some of which are arbitrary – like Dave’s reluctance to share his song ideas because of his romantic notion that good music is somehow accidentally discovered) which stop the characters from doing the thing they really want to do. The dialogue is unwaveringly genuine and the characters are fully dimensional and flawed in the most frustratingly real ways. It is a coming-of-age story where nobody seems to be fully deserving of adult certification. Rather, they oscillate between good and bad choices, the sensible and the inane. It is therefore unsurprising that there is an autobiographical thread to Rakoff’s effort. In fact, I would argue that she couldn’t have produced this book without being such a keen observer of herself and others.
In that regard, A Fortunate Age verges on a work of anthropology. It is absolutely situated in its time and place, with running references to real people and events (the most notable being 9/11), and the real neighbourhoods primarily of Brooklyn. Little details, descriptions of people and fashions and music, the micro-politics of mothers’ groups where both organic produce and breastfeeding are crucial, the subtle ways in which people simply talk to each other, colour in the context. While I was myself very small and nowhere near New York throughout the years the book takes place, I felt like it built on what I did already know. I came to get a sense of what it was like to try to grow up in this world. I realised how familiar it all was.
One of the tests for that precious adult certification in Rakoff’s world is in the realisation that you could well be the cause of your own problems. The concept is introduced early through the character of Beth, a doctoral candidate, who moves to New York from Milwaukee prematurely to take a job. In her program, she needed to accrue a number of teaching credits before moving away. Beth thought that she had those credits but she didn’t. It meant she couldn’t begin her new job. She couldn’t seem to understand why her new boss, Gail, was mad at her and why she wasn’t able to keep the position. She calls Gail to apologise, maybe arrange something else saying, ‘I hate to think this stupid mix-up [has ruined this opportunity].’ Gail’s response is to say that calling the situation a ‘mix-up’ is absurd: Beth was responsible to keep track of her credits, and in not doing so she caused a lot of chaos.
Beth seems shocked by this assessment, and yet recognises the truth in Gail’s sentiments. ‘In all her ruminations on the subject, this particular explanation had not occurred to her. She’d viewed herself as the incontrovertible victim of a stupid bureaucratic glitch… Maybe, perhaps, possibly, deep down she’d known it was her fault, but hadn’t wanted to admit it.’
She’s not alone in her participation of her own undoing. Another character, Tuck, is given a contract to write a book with time-limited appeal. When he is late to hand in his draft he’s already on thin ice, more so when his friend and the editor for his book, Sadie, gives him some revisions to work on and he refuses to do it. The book is eventually dropped. Meanwhile, Tuck’s wife, Lil, abandons her PhD in order to cater to Tuck’s monstrous ego. In doing so, she takes on a role answering phones for a poetry magazine, surprisingly for her and unsurprisingly for readers, finding herself unstimulated and thoroughly unhappy. Another character, Emily, reflects on Lil, ‘she wanted her friends to swallow her own wilful misconceptions about her life: that Tuck was a genius and she his happy muse. Or, in a different mood, that Tuck was a monster and she his unwilling victim.’
Rakoff is a master of showing how the realities of responsibility can be deflected with strange cognitive acrobatics. Caitlin, Lil’s best friend, cheats on her husband with Tuck. She protects herself easily from guilt, or even some small semblance of moral unease, by appropriating feminist discourse. She says that marriage is limited, that it oppresses women and assumes monogamy where monogamy is impossible. When asked why she got married in the first place if she didn’t believe in it, she just deflects further. Caitlin can do no wrong with political intellectualisation.
I, too, usually see myself as the last one to blame for any unpleasant situation. I think this is perfectly natural. And yet, how helpful it has been to realise the instrumental role I (by definition) play in my own life. Perhaps, for instance, I didn’t need to over-read situations and problematise what has been essentially good. Maybe when I meet new people or go to parties, people aren’t obsessed with my shortcomings. Perhaps they were interested in what I had to say. It is probably more likely that they don’t think of me as an idiot and aren’t making fun of me behind my back. Resultantly, I have learned not to make assumptions about others’ thoughts about me and have consequently found social life to be far more rewarding than ever before.
Also in my life, I can think of times when I’ve settled for lesser options just because of a vague lack of self-belief. I gave up writing fiction for years, I gave up Italian lessons, I gave up trying to read James Joyce, feeling I wasn’t ‘good enough’ when I should have instead tried harder.
A Fortunate Age is filled with other kinds of presentations and failures of responsibility. It is not something anyone seems to be able to quite resolve, it only seems to get trickier as more time passes. Alongside individual concerns of responsibility, there also arises ideological constrains, particularly for the women characters. While they may subscribe to feminist beliefs, it is invariably the wives who stay at home looking after both children and their husband’s career. Rakoff illustrates a new generation getting the work/life balance wrong, only in a different way to their overworked mothers who maintained careers while rearing them. Here, adulthood is about putting your ideologies into practice. It is also about the possibility that your ideologies might prove to have failed.
When this happens, otherwise promising young people look like they will go into middle-age, and perhaps die, in complete obscurity. All the characters harbour extensive dreams – to be authors, academics, actors, musicians – while at the book’s end it looks like a few might make it, most have established some kind of less desirable alternative. This is a generation of kids who were told they could be anything, a generation who want greatness, who think of themselves as special. Yet, they fail. Yet, they die. This is adulthood: the possibility of things turning out to be rather ordinary or even sad.
For me, this aspect of the book tied in so closely with my own worries around success that it served as an anxiety-fuelled read. Yet, I think that’s the kind of message we need as we slowly reach adulthood: life may not turn out as expected. It’s possible that our best bet is to see the mistakes and rejections as something we can work on as opposed to something out of our control that renders us one of life’s victims. A Fortunate Age ultimately tells us this. It advises a constructive path through our 20s, if only we knew how to walk it.