Palladio by Jonathan Dee
Reviewed by Leyla Sanai
NYT magazine writer Dee’s last novel published in the UK was Privileges, which won effusive praise from Jonathan Franzen, Richard Ford and Jay McInerney as well as newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic. Palladio preceded Privileges in the US but is published for the first time here this month. Like its predecessor, love is one of the central themes, but sadly the love here is not always reciprocal.
Molly is a beautiful and self-contained young woman brought up in an outwardly respectable home in a quiet US town manufactured around an IBM plant. But beneath the surface gloss, tension hisses as in a capped volcano, most notably from her frustrated mother who resents having been dragged to this dead-end place yet who is simultaneously too apathetic and mired in martyrdom to find a way out. Molly’s father’s way of coping is to keep up a facade of good cheer, one with which the whole family colludes .
Molly’s future is irrevocably changed due to the repercussions of an action taken when a teenager. She escapes to join her brother in Berkeley where he is a student, and there meets John, an art history student.
Years on, when John has been head-hunted by an enigmatic advertising innovator, Mal, Molly and John’s paths cross again, picking the scab off John’s wound and opening it up to fresh bleeding.
Dee writes with poise and grace, and his prose is marked by great dexterity of perception. He is as at home in the vicinity of teenage girls, whose superior languor he captures deftly (‘even in disgust, her boredom was imperial’; ‘they were…joined by…bold aspirants who did not join in the conversation but listened and laughed with great animation for the benefit of anyone at other tables who might be noticing them there’) as that of dysfunctional families, whose facades he nails with painful accuracy: ‘Molly never felt any…teenage scorn for the outright bogusness…, nor any lament for the absence of the genuine…Of course it was false, but there was no true language that she knew about in any case; every place had its idiom, and this was the idiom of home.’ The latter suppressed emotions are dissected by degrees with such artful insight that one can almost feel the pounding of self-justifying hearts palpitating with rage: ‘Barely speaking to each other they had nonetheless frothed up this scandalous incident until it grew large enough to contain the explanations for all the damage life had done to them.’ Later, the tragic sequelae of this kind of denial become apparent.
Readers will differ on their opinions of Molly. Is she a selfish, cruel character who uses others? Or is she genuinely so traumatised that her self esteem has eroded away like the veneer burnishing her family life? For me, she doesn’t show enough fragility or self hatred to truly be the damaged soul Dee wants us to believe she is; her impassive front never really cracks; she doesn’t cling to others like many with no self worth , nor does she break down or self harm (slashing, eating disorders) as you might expect. But this is largely irrelevant – she is intriguing and maddening, so she holds our interest.
Palladio is a majestic epic which marries the topics of capitalism and the sale of goods – advertising – to the age-old secret of life – what makes us fall in love? Do we love people despite their mystery/elusiveness or because of it? Is ‘in-love’ an illusion based on what you can’t have?
The advertising and art worlds are also subjected to Dee’s corruscating scepticism. The link between advertising and art has been apparent since 1959, when Richard Hamilton’s ‘Just What is it…?’ satirised our consumer hunger. The art radar of Dee’s novel picks up well after this point, in the mid 1990s, but the relationship between the two is still apparent. Much of the art that influences the artists/ad-people in Mal’s company references real life art – Hirsts’s pickled shark; Quinn’s own blood construction; Sam Taylor-Wood’s sleeping Beckham; even KLF’s infamous burning of their worldly possessions. Yet Dee offers is an intriguing new angle to consider – that of advertising, which has evolved from the earnest salesmanship of the ‘50s through knowing satire to the more cutting edge and controversial work, such as Benetton’s ad using a dying AIDS sufferer.
Dee masterfully weaves the dual aspects of the story, interlocking the tale of Molly’s coming-of-age with that of John’s recruitment by Mal, and then meeting in the middle to recollect their initial contact. The third-person omniscient narrator knows what different characters feel simultaneously, but is for the most part unobtrusive, and there is a powerful sequence where the first-person is used at a time of high emotional resonance.
My only cavils are mainly minor editing ones – ‘on the spot’ used twice within a few sentences, an apostrophe when there shouldn’t be one.
Perhaps too, John’s ability to move on after fairly long-term relationships (apart from that with Molly) without any regrets, questions or loneliness, is a little unrealistic, although it may be that Dee omitted these because the novel was already very lengthy.
Palladio sweeps you up into another world and leaves you with as many questions as answers. In a life where thirst for human understanding is never quenched, that’s a stimulating position in which to be suspended.