Sunday, October 7, 2012

"Triburbia," by Karl Taro Greenfeld

Karl Taro Greenfeld’s novel's title “Triburbia” (Harper, 2012) seems to gently mock the hip Tribeca area of Manhattan in the late 1990s and early 2000s as more suburban than its inhabitants would like to admit. As the author lives in Tribeca himself, he is able to draw the area in loving, knowing detail, despite his (or at least his characters’) ambivalence about the neighborhood and all it symbolizes. These characters, after all, are proud of themselves for living in Tribeca. As I read “Triburbia,” I kept thinking it should be subtitled something like “Bobos Behaving Badly.” Readers may remember David Brooks’ 2000 book, “Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There,” describing a particular blend of the bourgeois and the would-be bohemian found in certain U.S. cities, especially New York. Greenfeld’s characters fit this profile almost perfectly. The novel is structured around a rather long list of characters living in Tribeca whose children go to the same school. The focus is on the fathers, although there is plenty of bad behavior to go around. These are not bad people, but they are caught up in trying to have both artsy cred and money/privilege, and it is an uneasy mixture. Most of the men are rather angsty throughout the events of the novel; the women seem more likely to just do what needs to be done without constantly second-guessing their status and decisions. There are many affairs, lots of drugs (especially marijuana), crises about children, and more. Much of the focus is on social class status. Near the end of the novel, with the decline of the U.S. economy, some characters become very anxious and have to make some big changes. Yet somehow they are all (some more than others, of course) cushioned by enough safety nets and back-ups that they survive quite nicely. The two main problems I had with the book were, first, that it was sometimes hard to keep track of all the characters, and, second, that sometimes the author slipped into too much exposition/talkiness about the issues. The novel, although enjoyable, is a bit precious, seeming to describe a very limited world. However, we know that what happens in New York is often an indication of what happens elsewhere. And as a San Franciscan, I cannot deny that we have had as many or more “bobos” here as anywhere else.

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