Portraits Of Privilege In A New Golden Age

Spoiled: Stories
Spoiled: Stories
By Caitlin Macy
Random House
Hardcover, 240 pages
List price: $24

Read an excerpt

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Caitlin Macy wrote about class and love in her debut novel The Fundamentals of Play (2000). Mauro Speziale/Random House hide caption

itoggle caption Mauro Speziale/Random House
Caitlin Macy

Caitlin Macy wrote about class and love in her debut novel The Fundamentals of Play (2000).

Mauro Speziale/Random House

It's difficult to look at the bored, perpetually dissatisfied sophisticates depicted in Caitlin Macy's fiction and not see a nod to F. Scott Fitzgerald. (It's actually less a nod than an exuberant wave.) But in this follow-up to her well-received 2000 debut novel The Fundamentals of Play, Macy shows that, in addition to penetrating, witty insight, she shares a more important trait with the chronicler of the Golden Age: a deep empathy for her subjects.

Since the stories in Spoiled are set entirely before the current crash, the collection now seems, "Ozymandias"-like, to document the vanities of a past age. Macy's characters — hedge fund wives, trust-fund babies and dubiously funded expatriates — are direct beneficiaries by proxy of a financial and cultural boom that, like the Big Bang, created its own ecosystem, complete with a hierarchy of species whose signifiers are not only incomprehensible but invisible to the rest of us.

Macy's strength is the narrative equivalent of synecdoche: the odd bit of information that sums up the whole. In Christie, a friend's fiancé is dismissed thusly: "Bruewald had gone to one of those Euro institutes with the word polytechnical in the name." In the same story, the fact that a woman constantly mentions she's from Greenwich conjures a battery of negative associations about her class. Bait and Switch lets us in on the priceless status accorded those whose children not only fluently but unthinkingly converse in another language. And in Taroundant, a newly married woman is so concerned with whether the cultural explorations of her honeymoon are sufficiently nonchalant that she puts her fiancé into harm's way.

Like their studiously carefree forebears, Macy's characters attempt to minimize their social privilege rather than reveling in it. Whether it's a hedge fund wife consumed with being her nanny's best friend or a young man patiently exhausted by his girlfriend's attempts to get him interested in her boarding school, they zero in on the petty fixations of their circle as if, by close examination, they could be freed of them. But it is the deep irony of the collection that the main characters, trapped in their lives of willed indifference, are less free than the service staff they employ. A maid, after all, gets to go home.

Excerpt: 'Spoiled: Stories'

by Caitlin Macy

Spoiled: Stories
By Caitlin Macy
Hardcover, 240 pages
Random House
List price: $24

From the short story "Christie"

When you met Christie for the first time, it took only minutes to learn that she was from Greenwich, Connecticut, but months could go by before you got another solid fact out of her. After a couple of years in New York, she realized that she had to give people a little more information to stop them from digging, so once she'd mentioned Greenwich she would quickly add that she'd gone to "the high school," meaning the public one. The first time she said this, you'd find her forthrightness refreshing-disarming, even, in the midst of so many pretenders. You'd be prompted, perhaps, to admit something about yourself—the fact that you were doing Jenny Craig, for instance, and had to sneak the packaged food into your office microwave when no one was paying attention. But then you'd overhear Christie making the same confession to someone else, and it would lose its charm. It was just Fact No. 2, which, added to Fact No. 1-her childhood in Greenwich—represented the sum total of what could be stated about Christie Thorn's background, about her entire life before college and New York, where I'd met her.

Plus, you couldn't help being suspicious of her motives in revealing Fact No. 2. If, at a party, a group of people were standing around, sharing a corner of a room, and someone made an opening bid— mentioning Hotchkiss or St. George's, say—Christie would always pointedly interject, "Oh, I wouldn't know. I went to public school. Greenwich High. That's right—I was a good old suburban kid." Of course, Christie and the person who had mentioned boarding school were doing the same thing—preemptively defending themselves against attack—yet rightly or wrongly you were tempted to give the Hotchkiss guy a free pass. With him you could figure that his parents had divorced badly, or his mother was an alcoholic, or his brother had committed suicide (or perhaps it really had been an accidental overdose), or that in keeping with the family tradition Dad had gone crazy and now spent his days in slippers and a robe shooting intricate, archaic forms of pool. On account of one or more of these family problems, the young man felt insecure about himself as an individual, and so, in moments of social anxiety, he mentioned boarding school a little too early, and a little unnaturally, to shore up his resolve. Still, whatever his problem, whatever the big bad family secret, it was just the slightly burned edge on a cake that everyone still wanted to eat. How bad could those family problems really be, you'd asked yourself more than once, if, at the same time, you had the house in Edgartown? How bad—if you had the gray shingles, the weathered shutters, the slanting attic roof, the iron bedstead, the needlepoint pillow on the wicker settee proclaiming "A woman's place is on the tennis court!" the batterie de cuisine of lobster pots and potato mashers from the forties, and the octagonal kitchen window, through which you could glimpse the dunes and smell the salt air-could anything really be?

Meanwhile, you'd assume that Christie had more to protect, that her history was more embarrassing, somehow: a chronological downsizing of suburban homes (all of them, albeit, technically in Greenwich), a cheapness in things like bedding and glassware, or four people sharing one bathroom with a stand-up shower. And you wouldn't be wrong. The real story was simple, of course, and if it was sad, the sadness lay only in the gap between it and Christie's grand expectations. Christie's father had gone into business for himself and had cash flow problems. That was all. No one had murdered anyone; there wasn't a whiff of incest or abuse, embezzlement, or even tax fraud. Mr. Thorn had owed money his whole life, but he paid his bills more or less on time, and when he died, his life insurance policy would pay off the mortgage on the house. He was an honest man with a clean conscience.

Yet Christie's conscience was not clean, and seemed never to have been. In a typical scenario from her adolescence, her father would plan a nice vacation for the family, then wouldn't be able to swing it, Christie would throw a tantrum, and her mother, who spoiled her, would charge the trip on her credit card to appease her. Christie would go on the vacation, but she would go alone, with a similarly spoiled friend. She and the friend would go helling around Key West, say, or Miami Beach, feeling worse and worse and worse and laughing harder and harder. And then, and this was the kicker, Christie's mother would pick them up at LaGuardia (the friend's mother could never be bothered) and would want to know—would have been anxious about, primordially concerned about—whether they'd had a good time.

On the way back from one of these vacations, when she was sixteen or seventeen, Christie and her friend checked in late and were bumped up to first class. They were separated and Christie was seated next to a affluent—looking older man. The man drank Scotches and read a golf magazine, and, when the flight was delayed, the two became partners in peevish complaint, the man turning to Christie to include her in his "Can you believe this?" glare. Eventually, he asked her where she was from, and when she said, "Greenwich," he looked at her with a kind of absolute approval that Christie couldn't recall ever having inspired before. After that, whenever a flight of hers was delayed she'd shake her head and say, "Time to spare, go by air," as the Scotch-drinking man had, and when she met people, she liked to make sure that they knew where she was from.

After college (four ambitious yet misguided and ultimately obscure years at Colgate) after a prolonged phase of running around New York while drifting through a series of support jobs at big firms, and after she had slept with fifty-five, or was it sixty-five men, Christie found someone to marry. We spent a lot of time speculating as to who would be invited to the wedding (only a strange, angry girl named Mary McLean, who had made some Faustian bargain with Christie long before any of us met her, considered herself one of Christie's real friends), but in the end everyone was invited—to the Pierre, no less. Throughout the evening, Christie wore a look of incurable dissatisfaction. Her face was gaudily made up, as if for a school play or an ice-skating competition. At the reception, her parents seemed frightened. It was as if they had been instructed to keep their mouths shut at all costs. A guest would shake Mrs. Thorn's hand in the receiving line and say, "Hi, I'm Jen Ryan. Christie and I were roommates at Colgate" and Mrs. Thorn would nod, grim-faced, and say— literally—nothing, a strange gravelly noise sounding from the back of her throat. The groom's name was Thomas Bruewald, and he was gawky and tall, with an oversized head and a unibrow. His parents were never identified; perhaps they were not in attendance. Apparently they were foreign. He had grown up half over here and half over there—in Bavaria, was it? Or Croatia? At any rate, it wasn't Umbria or Aix or anywhere worth trying to lock in an invitation for. Bruewald had gone to one of those Euro institutes with the word polytechnical in the name. The champagne at the reception was a little too good, and some people had more than their fill and, by the end of the night, were making rude remarks. One guy said that Christie's parents must have taken out a second mortgage to pay for the wedding. "Didn't know you could get a second mortgage on a trailer," a yet unmarried, embittered young woman said. And then, of course, you got "Hey, wait a minute! There are no trailers"—the crowd in unison—"in Greenwich, Connecticut!" But nobody said that the groom was funny-looking. You could pick on Christie for trying too hard, you could note the moment when Mr. Thorn said, "Fuck it," took off his tuxedo jacket, and started doing body shots with the bridesmaids, but you didn't pick on the groom's looks. You just didn't go there.

Christie herself was quite pretty. Her features were large and unflawed, her hair was dyed only a shade or two lighter than it would have been naturally, and, in an age when Manhattan had been overrun by the kind of chain stores you'd find at a suburban mall, these attributes had kept her in dates for a decade and the word beautiful had been lobbed over her head with surprising—to some of us, disturbing—frequency.

The groom had some kind of science-related job—engineering drug research—that required a reverse commute to New Jersey. And once the wedding was over, once the gift had been ordered (they had registered for everything but the kitchen sink, in anticipation, evidently, of dinners for sixteen at which oysters would be served and finger bowls required), once the thank-you note from Christie—Christie Bruewald now, of course—had arrived, it seemed that only the sparsest smattering of social interactions was indicated, a coffee or a drink with her perhaps twice a year. There was even some thought that the newlyweds would move out of the city. Christie had long anticipated children (little trophies, one presumed, to fill up that bottomless pit of dissatisfaction), and the suburbs had been held up as a superior way of life even, as I recall, when she was still single.

Christie's new thing, at our biannual meetings, was to brag about her visits to see Thomas's family in Europe. It was mystifying—one would not have thought an "in" in the former East Germany particularly bragworthy, and, in any case, everyone at the wedding had seen how cowed the young man was, how classic the trade they had made. Did she think we didn't see her boasts for what they were? She started to slip into conversation the fact that Thomas's uncle had a title, or had had one—she was vague on the details—and she mentioned straightfacedly that there was a castle in the family. Her Christmas card (sent yearly to all of us, even though we had not sent one to her in years) introduced the Bruewald family crest. It was all so ludicrous and pathetic, really, when they were living in a studio in a high-rise on York Avenue.

"So why do you even see her?" my husband would ask. (I was married now, too.) "If she's so awful, why don't you dump her? Just don't call back." Like most men, he had no patience with these pseudo- friendships between women that drag on for years. The question troubled me, and in my head I came up with three reasons that I continued to see Christie Bruewald, née Thorn, at six-month intervals. First, in an anthropological observation sort of way, I enjoyed taking note of her pretensions. I enjoyed seeing how far she would go. In a way, I had exulted in the family-crest Christmas card. I had put it up on the refrigerator and shown it to everyone who came over. I was just dying, now, to see what would follow. When I met her for coffee, I went prepared with a mental tape recorder to catch her appalling lapses in taste—not so much for myself as to pass on to everyone else. Second, there were, and this was harder to admit, sparks of humanity in Christie's pretensions, and in her desires, that were missing from my life. She had coveted a huge diamond ring. She had hoped to land a guy with money. She had wanted her wedding to be an extravaganza, a day she'd remember for the rest of her life. She wasn't "over it." She wasn't over anything. She knew what she wanted, and she wanted the kinds of things that the marketers of luxury goods describe as "the best"—Jacuzzis; chandeliers; access to the tropics in the middle of winter. Third, and finally what got me, I suppose, were the indications of humanity in Christie's life that had nothing to do with the pretensions. The family crest on the Christmas card had been embossed onto a picture of the Bruewalds and their new baby, all three of them in matching red-and-green velvet outfits. The little girl looked exactly like Thomas—an odd-featured, brown-haired older man. She wouldn't have the advantage of her mother's looks, and, for someone as entranced by the superficial as Christie was, that must have been hard to take. You could say that I felt sorry for Christie.

Still, despite having my reasons for keeping in touch, a year or so after my own wedding I went through a period when I decided to burn the fat from my life. Christie had begun to represent all that was wrong with New York. Of course, this really meant what I was tired of in myself, but I didn't see that then. I wrote "Seeing people like Christie Thorn" on a list of things that were a fatal waste of time, and when she called and left a message to start the back-and-forth that would culminate in our having lunch a few weeks later, I didn't call back.

Perhaps I ended it then simply because the interesting part of Christie's story seemed to be over. Though my own life still seemed to me a fountain of infinite promise, hers felt blandly curtailed. I realized that there was a part of me that had almost wanted her to make it, on her own terms, whatever they might be. The somewhat sad thing about Christie's wedding was that it hadn't been outrageous at all; it had been just another overpriced New York wedding spearheaded by a bride with too much makeup on. I found it all too easy to imagine how her story would continue, how, inevitably, it would end. I lived with that story, kept the thread going in my mind, amending or extending from time to time, when some event in my own life recalled Christie's unhappy mixture of envy and drive, of self- promotion and apology.

My version (wholly fictional) went something like this: Having married for money, Christie quickly discovers that she hasn't married for enough. Realizing her mistake only deepens her underlying dissatisfaction, and, in order to convince herself that things can still change, she has an innocuous little affair in the first six months after the wedding. A year later, the second affair—with a secret dedicated cell phone; a pregnancy scare perhaps—is not so innocuous nor so little. Thomas is doing as well as he ever has, but this is New York, and after their second child is born (looking, thank-you-God, just like Daddy) the Bruewalds are unable to afford a big enough apartment in the city and they make that move to the suburbs.

Excerpted from Spoiled by Caitlin Macy Copyright © 2009 by Caitlin Macy. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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