09/17/12 - 0 Comments
“Rules of Civility” by Amor Towles: Drama, Grit and Gatsby Glamour
The Jazz Age is sweeping literature. While Amor Towles centers his debut novel Rules of Civility in late 1930s Manhattan, the decadence and delusion of the roaring twenties still shine bright—albeit closer to the hovering black cloud of World War II.
The novel begins in 1969 with protagonist Katey Kontent, who has settled down with a good man and the accolades from a successful Condé Nast career. Viewing a MoMA exhibit featuring Walker Evans’ hidden-camera photographs of subway commuters, she spots the face of old friend Tinker Grey in two polarizing pictures: one captures Tinker’s former wealth, the other, his fall from fortune. The moment of recognition spurs Katey into a beautiful rollercoaster narration of her life as it involved Tinker, and the divergent paths they chose.
Towles explores New York as a symbol of the American Dream, dripping with promise. Katey is wrapped up in reinvention, dropping “Katya” to erase her immigrant heritage, for “America may be the land of opportunity, but in New York it’s the shot at conformity that pulls them through the door.” Her friend Eve similarly shrugs off her wealthy Midwest roots to claim city girl independence.
The girls meet Tinker, a handsome, wealthy and seemingly innocent banker eager for his own shake-up. It doesn’t take long for tragedy to strike—the trio is involved in a car accident that leaves Eve devastatingly disfigured and Tinker (as driver) coping with the magnitude of his guilt. Suddenly, upholding appearances seems unfathomable in a city where appearance is everything. Reinvention is the only escape. But, of course, there’s also glamour in droves. Scenes of slinky dresses, fast cars and fabulous diamonds are aplenty. Katey describes a moment of enchantment when a Bentley arrives to scoop her up from work, a car “designed with envy in mind.”
Today’s readers seem to crave pre-war jazz-infused, flapper-fueled drama and glamour. Laura Moriarty’s The Chaperone is another stellar novel, opening in the early 1920s to give voice to the chaperone that accompanied silent-film starlet Louise Brooks to New York to begin her rapid ascent (and subsequent descent) into Hollywood fame. And, no doubt, there’s the much-anticipated film adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. The parallels between Gatsby and Rules are unavoidable—both involve tragic car accidents, life-altering love triangles and the implications of new versus old wealth.
Towles takes the theme of fate and lacquers it with serendipity, fortune and success, only to strip it away and reveal human desire and, ultimately, the city that never sleeps. In Manhattan, glitz and grit cohabitate. It’s the perfect cityscape for a novel that deals in the intricacies of love and ambition. Katey keeps the hope of seeing Tinker again alive, “for wasn’t it just a matter of time before we crossed each other’s paths? Despite all the hoopla, wasn’t Manhattan just ten miles long and a mile or two wide?”
Maybe so, but the gravitational force of fate reigns in Rules.