Too Rich, Too Phony, Too Successful
Investigating postgrad ennui with equal parts tenderness and scorn in Dylan Hicks’ Amateurs
Literary ambition is so rarely rewarded in any tangible way that another writer’s seemingly meteoric and facile success can be incredibly painful, much as we struggling writers may remind ourselves that others’ achievements have no bearing on our own potential, that life is not a contest, that we should be grateful that anyone’s art is rewarded at all, etc., etc. With seasonal regularity a select few writers emerge in a deluge of barely earned hype that engenders excitement, resentment, and innumerable “writer’s envy” think-pieces. (I’d consider Curtis Sittenfeld’s “Too Young, Too Pretty, Too Successful” the ur-text of this genre — in the internet age, least; Harold Bloom could point probably you to some Shakespearean ephemera in which he slags off Christopher Marlowe.)
Along with the praise, influence, and seven-figure advances these prodigies reap comes intense scrutiny that reveals, more often than not, apparent privilege. These writers — heretofore unknown — arrive not just fully formed brilliant storytellers; they are also young, extraordinarily educated, rich, connected, and photogenic. From our limited vantage point, their success appears to be not at all hard-won. Of course we know nothing of their struggles. Countless network teen dramas have shown us that even the young, rich, and beautiful cry and bleed. Still, it’s not out of line to assume a gilded status would relieve many a struggling writer of their more immediate — read: financial — struggles; for these golden boys and girls, the luxury to try and fail without financial consequences seems to negate failure altogether.
At heart of Dylan Hicks’ novel Amateurs is one such wunderkind: Archer Bondarenko, heir to multiple fortunes, most notably the spoils of his stepfather’s sex toy business, and a burgeoning novelist/essayist of modest success but snowballing renown. He is the center around which the novel’s disparate characters pivot: Sara Crennel, a driftless MFA graduate who finds an uneasy sense of direction and security by ghostwriting nearly all of Archer’s work, including e-mails to his publisher and agent; John Anderson, a self-styled artisanal bike builder and Sara’s onetime boyfriend; Lucas Pope, a fellow student from Sara’s “second-tier” MFA program who carries a torch for Archer’s fiancé Gemma; and Archer’s cousin Karyn Bondarenko, a young mother who has long abandoned her aspirations to act but who has been lately dabbling in playwriting. The novel alternates between two timelines: one that dips into the characters’ lives circa 2004–2009 and the days surrounding their convergence at Archer’s 2011 wedding.
That set-up may be a tough sell to some readers, as it was to me. In synopsis Amateurs resembles a mediocre indie dramedy of the sub-Stillman/Baumbach mold: white, mostly twenty-something, mostly well-educated but underemployed members of the creative class while away their post-collegiate years with urbane chatter and tentative stabs at both artistic fulfillment and adulthood. These are the kinds of characters who describe their mundane day job by referencing “Keats’s negative capability,” who publish essays in “influential journal[s] out of New York,” who write plays inspired by esoteric acid-folk groups. But Hicks is too astute an observer of quarter-life ennui, too precise and empathetic a chronicler of his characters’ very real anxieties to write Amateurs off so easily.
This isn’t just a book featuring pretentious, privileged people; it is a book about privilege, about pretension. By dint of being born in America, each of Hicks’ characters is relatively privileged. But some are more privileged than others. And so they face the frustration, as do we all, that their entitlement doesn’t entitle them to everything they want. Even Archer’s limitless well of money doesn’t avail him of the talent or discipline to be the writer he pretends to be.
The novel shifts point of view frequently, with Hicks’ masterful free indirect narration affording nearly all of the core characters unexpected depth and anguish. For instance, Lucas, whom Karyn — and the reader — initially regards as a freeloading slacker, reveals himself to be thoughtful and charming in a relatable, practiced way; in an introductory chat he strategizes the progress of small talk:
“He had so far asked two questions about her job. His goal in situations like this was five; he sometimes pictured hash marks in his head.”
Depicted with true-to-life awkwardness and under the specter of mutual doubt, the relationship that burgeons between the two wounded but resilient loners is the novel’s emotional cornerstone. Likewise, there’s something quaint and tragic about John’s fastidious mania for dressing well even though, as the live-in caretaker for Sara’s father George, he has no discernible social life. A formerly close friend of Archer who resents Archer’s easy life station, John falls into sartorial refinery perhaps as meek appropriation of his friend’s privilege.
Tellingly, Archer is the rare figure whose point of view Hicks leaves inaccessible. As a result, his motivations for playing at authorship remain mysterious, even to Sara. Is he merely a bored dilettante? A sociopathically ruthless intellectual wannabe? An unremarkable thinker ashamed of his own limitations but who yearns for prestige? Aspiring writers likely may find Sara’s own motivations for going along with Archer’s scheme perplexing to the point of fury. How could she let him take all the credit for her work? However, when the specifics of their arrangement are eventually revealed, it all becomes clear. Early in the novel, Sara refers to her level of financial security as “safety-net money, not write-your-novel money.” Not only does Archer pay her much more than any sane publishing house would, his connections relieve her of the grind and anxiety that comes with aspiration. As Archer’s uncredited ghostwriter, she accesses a privilege that would be unattainable to her even if she had succeeded on her own terms.
Amateurs might sound like a satire of the publishing industry but Hicks usually harnesses his vitriol and insight to comment instead on human foibles and contemporary mores. Hicks has a way with efficient, lacerating description: John’s scumbag brother is “the kind of guy who blows marijuana smoke into the mouths of dogs.” Lucas dresses “like a semifamous cartoonist, or someone who would recognize a semifamous cartoonist.” Archer in casual wear resembles a guy “trying out for Yo La Tengo” and a kid “delivering the Sacramento Bee in 1966.” Hicks can be tender, too, as when he describes through Karyn a facial tic that is “as endearing as missed belt loop,” or when he nails John’s mournfulness over a particular type of relationship that festers in late young adulthood, those that survive largely on convenience and routine:
[I]t seemed to John that Archer was trying to maintain their friendship in the most efficient way possible, often building plans around mundane things he was going to do anyway. But then, maybe that two-birds-with-one-tone approach had always held sway; maybe in the past Archer would have gone from restaurant to gallery to bar to party whether John was with him or not.
Most impressively, Amateurs captures the intricacies of social exchange in a screen-dominated culture. Without being showy about it, the novel explores the way social media and technology interweaves itself through “real” lives and relationships, highlighting the common though unhealthy belief that more knowledge equals less anxiety. On their first meeting, Lucas and Karyn stumblingly reveal that they have thoroughly vetted each other on Facebook; while that seems like it would accelerate their intimacy, it has the opposite effect when Lucas realizes he looked up the wrong Karyn Bondarenko. Elsewhere, Hicks juxtaposes the thought process that goes into composing a text with the text itself:
“His text had come through on her lunch break. Could they, he had wondered, get together, maybe tonight, to talk about her play? She considered responding with caveats: she wasn’t interested in lengthy, if any discussion of her private play, nor was she up for cooking dinner. In the end that seemed overwrought. She wrote, “Sure, drop by at 8.”
As Amateurs nears its end, the generally meandering novel suddenly takes off full-blast, as Hicks throws in a pregnancy, a wedding, a scandal, and a sudden declaration of love. But it reads as the inevitable boiling over of tensions that have simmered from chapter one rather than a conciliatory swerve into plot. The last act ramp-up is the natural path toward confrontations and resolutions that the novel has earned, the characters deserve, and the reader has yearned for.
Ultimately Hicks cares more about his characters than making a statement about capital-P Publishing, but what Amateurs does have to say about Publishing can be summed up by the back matter page that (I presume) appears in every Coffee House Press title that reads simply, “LITERATURE is not the same thing as PUBLISHING.” Hicks couldn’t ask for a more suitable epigraph.