To Be Young And 'Fortunate' In 1990s Boomtime

'A Fortunate Age', cover
A Fortunate Age
By Joanna Smith Rakoff
Hardcover, 416 pages
Scribner
List price: $26

Read An Excerpt.

Joanna Smith Rakoff

A Fortunate Age is Joanna Smith Rakoff's first novel. Elena Seibert hide caption

itoggle caption Elena Seibert

A Fortunate Age, Joanna Smith Rakoff's sweeping debut novel about 20-something Oberlin grads living in New York City, may turn out to be the long-awaited book that perfectly captures the '90s, that time of social and financial excess that set the stage for the current economic collapse.

College friends Beth, Sadie, Lil, Tuck, Dave, Tal and Emily are opinionated, hyper-educated and full of pithy observations about life. Even as they live their scuffling, post-graduation lives in tiny Brooklyn flats, they feel obliged to provide a snarkily ironic running commentary on just about everything. Sadie rolls her eyes at girls carrying yoga mats and mocks a friend whose toenail polish is the color of "mold." But despite their experiments with advanced sexual practices and edgy lifestyles, these refugees from suburbia are as deeply concerned with propriety, marriage, education and money as any finicky matron in an E.M. Forster novel.

They want to make it in their various arty fields; their carefully forged identities depend on it. But for the most part, they lack the gritty drive of the truly successful. Years pass. One succeeds through hard work, another through luck. Two stumble into happy marriages. Two linger in a quietly desperate, tragically hip limbo as awful as any hell.

Through it all, Smith Rakoff's characters — the sometimes cock-sure, sometimes appealing, often annoying but always earnest bright young things who, like so many before and since, stake it all on New York — remain deeply human. For a brief time, they live the whirligig feeling of endless potential. That glorious sense of anything-goes disappears for them, as it did for so many, when terrorists take out the Twin Towers. That devastating upheaval makes this a novel of manners that matters.

Excerpt: 'A Fortunate Age'

A Fortunate Age
By Joanna Smith Rakoff
Hardcover, 416 pages
Scribner
List price: $26

Chapter Four

In December, Tuck lost his job at Boom Time. He was certain, Lil said, to find a similar job, and quick, at a similar magazine, like Fast Company or Bubble Economy, or Salon or Slate or Feed, or a portal like Yahoo! or Google, which was where the real money was, or even at an ad agency or branding firm or something.

"Could Tuck really do that?" asked Beth. It was difficult to imagine anyone she knew working in advertising, a soulless, ethically dodgy industry, which she'd taught her students in Milwaukee to dissect.

"Totally. The new companies operate on a different business model," Lil told her, missing the point. They were shivering their way through bowls of crab bisque at the Grey Dog, with Sadie and Emily, on the first Saturday of the New Year. "They're not looking for MBAs or whatever. They just want smart people who have new, exciting ideas." Her friends nodded dutifully, their cheeks still reddened with cold. "I mean, I'm not excited that he was fired, but I guess, it's like: if you're going to be fired once in your life, this is probably the time."

"You're so right," said Beth, leaning in toward Lil. "Will keeps wondering if he should go to a dot-com."

"Would he do that?" asked Sadie, blotting her nose with an oversized handkerchief. "He seems so entrenched in the Journal." Sadie's mother disliked the Journal's politics — despite appearances, she was a staunch Democrat — and sniffed disapprovingly when she caught James Peregrine reading it.

Beth shrugged. "His friend Ben just got a job at this new site, Law.com, and he's making like a zillion dollars."

"What is it? A magazine?"

Again, Beth shrugged. "I'm not sure. They haven't launched yet. Apparently, Ben has, like, nothing to do. He writes freelance pieces all day." She blew, halfheartedly, on a spoonful of soup. "It's just so weird. Jason tells us the most crazy stories about Stanford — "

"That's where the guys who started Yahoo! are from, right?" interrupted Lil. "Weren't they Stanford students?"

"Mmm-hmmm," said Beth, "but Jason says there are so many start-ups that there aren't enough people to staff them. So they're recruiting freshmen. So, like, these eighteen-year-old guys are dropping out of school and making these huge salaries. Jason says they come back to campus for parties, and they're like driving Maseratis."

Emily gave a low laugh. "Can you imagine?" she said. "Weren't we all, like, eating ramen when we were eighteen?"

"Beans and rice," Lil corrected. "At Fairchild."

"Oh, right," said Emily, cocking her head to one side. "That's now. That I'm eating ramen. I can't afford beans and rice."

"Me, either," said Beth. She was still waiting to hear from Gail Bronfman — as well as the Gail Bronfmans of NYU, Hunter, Brooklyn College, and Baruch — about teaching in the spring semester, which was starting soon, so soon that she was sure nothing would come through and she would have to — well, she didn't know. Work as an SAT tutor. Copyedit. Temp. Ask her parents for money. Or, as Will kept suggesting, write for magazines. She'd just, with an introduction from him, sent on a brief section of her dissertation, on the annual Dark Shadows conference in Pasadena, to an editor at Salon — and to her shock had received a brief, kind note saying they'd like to run it. She'd been debating the right time to tell her friends. If she mentioned it before the piece was thoroughly, truly, completely published, she worried she might jinx the whole affair, causing it to disappear into thin air. Now, with this bad news about Tuck, she thought she might not tell them at all. For she knew Lil. Lil would take it as an affront: Beth infringing on Tuck's territory.

"Well, so are we," said Lil. "I kind of love ramen, actually. Though it's so bad for you."

"Maybe Tuck's next job will be better," suggested Emily.

A too-bright smile appeared on Lil's face. "I was thinking the exact same thing! Salon would be great, wouldn't it? He's perfect for them."

Her friends nodded. "Yes, definitely," Beth agreed. No, she would say nothing about her piece. "I can't believe they fired him right before Christmas. They could have waited until after the holidays, at least. It just seems so cruel."

"I know! It was awful." Lil had barely touched her soup. "Everyone else in the world was buying presents and, like, flying to the Bahamas, and we were afraid to buy coffee."

"That sucks," agreed Emily.

"I know," cried Lil, pushing a heavy lock of hair behind her ear. "The worst thing, though, was that we were completely paralyzed, because all the magazines pretty much shut down between Thanksgiving and New Year's. Nobody does any hiring."

Sadie, who had remained quiet all this time, neatly sipping her soup from the side of her spoon, now sighed heavily. "Of course," she said, in such a way that it wasn't clear whether she meant of course no one does any hiring around the holidays, what kind of fool would think otherwise, or of course Lil and Tuck had been dealt a wretched hand by fate, or of course Tuck believed himself to have been dealt a wretched hand by fate, when in fact he had clearly, obviously, of course, brought about his own bad fortune by being an egotistical ass.

Lil chose to believe the first. She nodded seriously at Sadie. "So there was no way he could even begin looking until last week. I think it was driving him crazy, feeling like there was nothing he could do."

All of this was, of course, exactly what Tuck had told her, a week or so prior, when she'd timidly asked how the job search was going. "Lil, come on," he'd said. "They'll think I'm an idiot if I send out my résumé now." He was lying on their couch — a low velvet thing they'd purchased at Ugly Luggage for $350 — reading Wired, its lurid orange and silver spine glaring at her. Eighteen months earlier, when she'd first met him, Tuck had carried around battered volumes of poetry — Frank O'Hara, John Ashbery, Randall Jarrell — in an old army surplus bag. Now he professed himself incapable of focusing on the minutiae of verse. He read magazines and watched television.

"It's my job," he told her when she commented on this change in his habits, over Thanksgiving weekend, which they'd spent alone at their apartment, eating a miniature turkey Lil had carefully roasted according to instructions in The Silver Palate Cookbook. They couldn't afford to fly to L.A. or Atlanta — the wedding and rent had eaten up all their cash. "I'm writing about mass culture, about popular culture, not poetry, Lil. I need to know what's going on." Yes, Lil said, she understood that his job necessitated a certain immersion in the more banal aspects of contemporary life — though of course he seemed no longer to consider such things banal — but did he always have to be "working"? Couldn't he read poetry on the weekends? "Lil," he said, sighing brusquely. "I know it's hard for you to understand. Since you were, you know, born in a bookstore." He cracked a smile — that gorgeous, rare smile of his, which she couldn't resist returning — and ran his hand proprietarily over her hair, a thrilling feeling. "But once you leave academia, it just starts to seem pretty irrelevant. It's hard to get lost in a novel when you know it's all a lie and what's going on in the real world — the stuff I'm writing about for the magazine — is so exciting. And poetry is like . . ." He raised his hands up in a gesture of surrender. "No one actually reads poetry. We just fool ourselves into thinking it's important."

"It is important!" cried Lil. Over the summer, she'd worked at the poetry organization down in Soho, answering phones. And hundreds of people had called each and every day with questions about matters related to poetry. Tuck didn't understand that poetry could save a person's life, had saved her life, because she wasn't born in a bookstore. She was from L.A. Her parents sat in front of the television each night and talked about the price of gas. She wouldn't have made it through middle school without Frank O'Hara, high school without Plath. "Tuck, it is. How can you say that?"

"Lil, it's not. Business is important. Money is important. Jobs. Economics. People's day-to-day concerns. Poetry is a luxury."

Lil felt certain he was wrong, but couldn't articulate why and, thus, left the matter alone, eyeing Tuck nervously when he snapped on the television and tuned the channel to some moronic sitcom, which, only a short time earlier, he and Will Chase would have declared a vicious assault on art. Perhaps she was born in a bookstore, at least in the sense that she'd learned much about life from novels. But so had Beth and Sadie. And, for that matter, Will Chase, who'd done the whole Svengali thing: married some idiot, thinking he'd turn her into an intellectual. That's the big difference, she thought, between novels — or movies — and life. In real life, people don't actually change.

"So what happened," Sadie asked her. "I thought Ed loved Tuck."

"He did," Beth confirmed. She and Will regularly got together with Ed, which put her in the uncomfortable position of possibly knowing more about the situation at Boom Time than did Lil and Tuck. "He does. He didn't fire Tuck. He's horrified by the whole thing."

"Ed has no control anymore," Lil explained, resting her cheek on her fist. "You know. They said everything would be the same." She turned to Emily. "The First Media people."

"I know," said Emily.

"But it wasn't." The girls nodded, lips pursed, eyes wide with concern. They'd heard about this in the fall. How the suits at First Media — or "Worst Media," as the Boom Time staff took to calling them — after insisting that they wanted to maintain the magazine's "voice" and "magic," had fired Ed's young section editors and replaced them with warhorses from the trades, tabloids, and glossies, who had, in turn, done away with the magazine's structure and practices, under dictate from First Media's balding CEO. The new regime required employees to arrive by nine clad in "business casual" attire (no jeans, flip-flops, sneakers, Hawaiian-print shirts, or T-shirts with logos or writing on them; no hats, unless necessary for the practice of one's religion). No longer could Tuck roll in at eleven, send out for coffee and breakfast, chat with Ed for half an hour (in lieu of a staff meeting), and get to work around noon. Nor could his friend Jonathan, who had a baby and a house in Nyack, arrive at eight and leave at four, to give his wife a bit of a break (even if he'd won a Pulitzer for his reporting on the Gulf War). Nor could any of them, Ed included, while away an hour in the chill-out room, tossing around story ideas while reclining on plush bean bags, sipping slushies, or playing a round or two of Ms. Pac-Man or Frogger. First Media had moved the magazine from their loft at Broadway and Houston into the company's anonymous corporate headquarters — acid green burlap cubicles, industrial carpeting — at Forty-first and Third.

"Maybe it's not such a bad thing," Beth suggested. "He was really unhappy, wasn't he?"

"He was," Lil admitted. And he wasn't alone. Jonathan, whom Tuck worshipped, had taken a job at the culture desk of the Times. Others left for Boom Time's imitators, none of which had been taken over by larger corporations (yet). Ed locked himself in his small new office all day, allegedly reading copy and writing an eternally unfinished piece about web-based film distribution, but really, Tuck suspected, succumbing, in his own odd way, to despair: obsessively posting to tech listservs and typing screeds for his old usenet board and playing some creepy fantasy game involving orcs and elves. "He could barely get out of bed in the morning, in the end. I sort of knew this was going to happen. He was late — like, an hour late — every day. I told you, right, about the ID cards." The "Slikowskers" — as the original staffers had taken to calling themselves — had so much trouble getting to work on time that the company had installed a swipe card system. In order to get in — or out — of their offices, they had to swipe their IDs. Hours were tallied each week, with particular emphasis on lunch breaks, which could be no more than a half hour. Which was kind of absurd, seeing as under Ed's regime, they'd happily worked twelve-hour days.

"Yeah, it was completely fascist," said Emily. "Remember in school they tried to do that to the dorm cleaners? There was a huge protest."

"I think they did it anyway," said Sadie, picking up one of the small, hard rolls that had accompanied their soup. They loved this café — with its purposefully unhip New England clam-shack decor — and had recently decided that they also loved its neighborhood, the tiny streets south and west of Sixth Avenue — Bedford, Carmine, Downing. "Is that why he was fired? Because he was late?"

Lil shook her head. "He got something wrong in a piece. That story about anarchists. Like, the web allows them to organize without, you know, having a central organizing body. Did you guys read it? In the December issue?"

Sadie and Beth nodded. "Will loved it," Beth told her.

"Oh my God, he was reporting it for months." Lil sighed and shook her head. "He talked to, like, a hundred people. And this one guy, he'd asked to be anonymous and Tuck used his name." Beth looked down at her bowl. She knew, from Will, that this wasn't nothing. "The guy complained. He's, like, threatening to sue."

"Wow," said Emily.

"I know," said Lil. "But the thing is they were looking to get rid of Tuck. Or that's what he thinks. That they knew they could replace him with a twenty-two-year-old — who they could pay, like, a third of his salary."

"It's probably true," said Sadie, breaking off a piece of roll.

"His boss was just on him all the time." Tuck despised this woman, a severe, slate-haired middle-management type in her fifties, who didn't, according to Tuck, get Boom Time at all. Lil had met her, just once, and trusted that this was true, but also suspected that the woman sensed Tuck's resentment and disdain — and behaved accordingly. Tuck believed she was both jealous of him — for being young and successful — and bizarrely attracted to him. She bothered him about obscure grammatical matters, complained about his lateness, and made not-so-subtle — inappropriate, really — comments about his failure to shave on certain mornings. "I don't know if I ever told you guys this, but back in November, one night he left early to meet me at your play, Em, and she made this big deal about it. I guess he sort of made it out to be my fault and she said, 'Your wife is demanding, isn't she? Journalism is for the unattached and ambitious.'"

"Who is she?" asked Sadie. "Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday?"

"I know, right." Emily laughed. "That's crazy."

"Wasn't she, like, the copy chief at Seventeen?" asked Beth. "Or that's what Will said."

Lil nodded. "But she never would have gotten there if she hadn't been unattached and ambitious," she said, smiling wickedly. The truth was, Lil sometimes wondered if Tuck wasn't making some of this stuff up, skewing his stories so that he seemed the victim. Tuck had terrible problems with authority. It was why, she knew, he'd never become a true star at Columbia. He didn't get that he had to wend his way into the good graces of his superiors. He hated schmoozing with professors at cocktail parties and readings. He never went to office hours or engaged his advisors in lively discussions of current scholarship or even sought advice from them. Everyone knew academics — toiling away in their nichey salt mines, publishing papers in Eighteenth Century Studies or Gender and Hegemony — wanted to feel needed and appreciated and worshipped by their students. But Tuck made them feel the opposite: unnecessary and outmoded. Which, Lil had to admit, many of them were. But still. It was as though he was determined to lead life in the most difficult way possible, out of some misguided sense of integrity.

He talked constantly of the new regime and the small rebellions planned and enacted by the Slikowskers. Lil listened patiently and sympathetically, but she thought she, in Tuck's place, might change her habits and adjust her thinking to meet the demands of the new people, who were, after all, simply doing their job, the best they knew how. They were trying to make the magazine operate more like other magazines. Was there anything really so wrong with that?

"The whole thing is so depressing," lamented Beth. "Ed is just a wreck. He really regrets selling."

"Then why did he do it?" asked Sadie.

"He needed money," said Lil.

"His backers were freaking out," Beth explained. "They're these software guys. They don't get that magazines don't make money overnight. They were threatening to pull the plug."

"Especially magazines run by people who have no idea how to run magazines," said Sadie. Lil gave her a dark look, through lowered lids, for Ed's lack of magazine experience was — as everyone knew — what had made Boom Time great. Ed was a visionary, a genius. At sixteen, he'd earned a modicum of fame for hacking into his high school's computer system and rearranging students' schedules, so that uptight AP physics students wound up in health class with dull-minded jocks and cheerleaders. The school's guidance counselors quickly remedied the prank, but not before Ed's goal — a Breakfast Club-style commingling of social groups — had been realized and, moreover, reporters had flocked to Pasadena, wanting to interview the techno-socialist. He'd wound up a human-interest item, in the pages of People and Time and USA Today, cheerfully opining on the vicious social structure of the modern high school and the democratizing power of the home computer. Most magazines, he'd told Lil when she'd first met him, were written by "corporate whores and yuppie porn slaves" and filled with "glorified ad copy and assorted insipid drivel." The world was ready for stories that explored popular culture — for that was what technology was becoming, wasn't it? — without sycophantic references to demi-celebrities and barely concealed product placement. He'd decided to run Boom Time as if it were "the first magazine to walk the earth."

The Times mag, in their profile, had run a photo of him at sixteen, in a green Atari T-shirt and too-long jeans, his elbow resting on a boxy Mac Plus, his cheeks, even then, covered with a dense, inky growth. Lil had loved this photo, for reasons she couldn't explain, and she'd blushed and stammered when next she saw Ed, remembering how she'd lingered over it. The real Ed was somewhat less approachable. He always greeted Lil like an old friend, but he spoke so passionately and forthrightly and earnestly that it perpetually caught her off guard. "What do you think about this impeachment madness?" he'd asked the last time she saw him, in November, before Tuck was fired. "It's crazy," she'd said, stupidly, realizing that her thoughts didn't go much deeper than that. By all rights, he should consider her an idiot. But he didn't seem to, which made her even more uncomfortable, for this made her the recipient of his charity.

"I think he's going to leave," Beth told them.

"And do what?" asked Lil skeptically.

"Go back to MIT, finish his Ph.D., work in the Media Lab."

"How could he go back?" asked Lil. She seemed almost angry. The girls looked at one another. "To Boston? To school? After running his own magazine?"

Beth shrugged. "He's been talking about making a movie. With Jonathan. About this company they wrote about last year. They own the rights. I think he's working on the screenplay."

"A movie?" cried Lil. Her friends looked away, embarrassed by this display of emotion. Why should it matter to her if Ed left Boom Time? Though, of course, Sadie thought, she felt betrayed. Ed could leave, could go off and do whatever he liked, could rise from the ashes of his success, but Tuck had been forced out, demoralized.

Excerpted from A Fortunate Age, by Joanna Smith Rakoff. Copyright © 2009 by Joanna Smith Rakoff. Reprinted by permission of Scribner, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Inc.

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