There's a fundamental aspect of the American story that involves going to the big city in order to succeed


Jonathan Dee

Jonathan Dee

Palladio: A Novel

Jonathan Dee is a writer for Harper’s, the New York Times Magazine and The Paris Review. Before tackling the financial world in The Privileges, he wrote about the world of advertising and its impossible ideals. Halfway between F. Scott Fitzgerald and John Cheever, Palladio is a superb novel with a vertiginous subject.

The novel reminded me a bit of John Cheever, this appeal to characters such as Molly’s mother whoses neuroses are concealed by suburban ordinariness. Don’t you think it may be a rather dated image of America?

Well, I’m always flattered to be compared to John Cheever! But I wouldn’t have thought that where Molly and her family live is a prosperous affluent suburb in the way that what in America we call « Cheever country » is. I agree, actually, that there’s a certain cliché, a received idea about the suburbs that is a little tired in American art in general, but I hope I avoided it. I certainly tried to!

John works in an advertising agency that wants to create an ultimate form of artistic advertising. Isn’t it dangerous to make those worlds mingle?

I think so. John is really swept up in Mal Osbourne’s image of a world where the distinction between art and advertising – which many people find so troubling – simply doesn’t exist. He’s very charistmatic and people tend to gather around him just because he’s so confident. I don’t think that Mal’s vision of the future is borne out, even in the book, his great plan literally burns to the ground, and I’m personally happy for that. I’m glad to let Mal have his ideals, I can even make the case for his ideals as his creator, but I’m glad he turns out to be wrong.

John and Molly eventually leave New York. Because they’re too mavericks for this place?

There’s a fundamental aspect of the American story that involves going to the big city in order to succeed. Another aspect involves becoming successful and then figuring out how to leave the city, because the city is seen – not without reason – to have a kind of corrupting influence, a morally corrosive influence, and that’s the influence that Mal in particular wants to get away from. So he doesn’t go just anywhere, he goes to Charlottesville, Virginia, which is the hometown of Thomas Jefferson, a kind of cradle of American democracy, and he’s telling himself a little bit of a story there about a return to innocence, maybe a return to cultural innocence. But to him, and to John too, to some extent, leaving the city becomes a kind of cleansing activity.

You also write for Harper’s Magazine. What does this bring to novel writing?

The writing I do for Harper’s is almost all long form book reviewing, which I enjoy doing, and I enjoy doing it there, because they allow me to choose my subject. It’s nice to be able to take the work of an author who I feel is under appreciated and talk at length about why I think he or she deserves a wider audience. I also write for the New York Times Magazine and that’s more reporting, non-fiction. I only started that ten or twelve years ago, but it’s been great for my fiction, honestly, because it gets you out into the world and it gets you into strange places and strange subcultures that normally you might not see. Even though I don’t think of it as research while I’m doing it, except research for the story I’m writing; down the road, years afterwards, sometimes it comes in useful when I’m trying to imagine something. They’ve sent me to report on gay rappers in New Orleans, pediatric AIDS wards, all kinds of things that my normal life would not bring me into contact with, so I love doing that.

How do you include the myth of the American dream in your work?

Sometimes I think that the myth is more alive outside of America than inside of it. When I think about it, I think there are two aspects of it: one is the dream of social upward mobility, the dream of moving to America, starting over, and having no limits in terms of what you can accomplish. I don’t want to dismiss that because that still happens every day, I think, it would be easy for me to be haughty about it, but to someone who has just emigrated to the United States in search of it, it’s very real. The other aspect of the American dream has to do with the idea of American exceptionalism, the notion that Americans love to cling to, that they’re a sort of biblical city on the hill, that they’re an example to the rest of the world, that their way of life is vindicated because they’re superior to the rest of the world in every respect; and that of course, except maybe in military terms, is almost impossible to believe in. But look at simple things like education or infant mortality : we’re doing terribly, but the worst we do, the more fiercely Americans wanna hold on to it, and the angrier they get if you try to deny it.