Right from its sour-grapes joke of a title, Triburbia (Harper, July 31) acts as a reminder of how very small and self-involved a big city can be. After all, that a novel like this — all about the peccadilloes and dalliances of largely well-off, non-working creative types living in a little slice of downtown Manhattan — gets published and promoted probably comes down to either a solid bet on the appeal of looking behind closed doors or a tacit admission that the publishing industry belongs to the same small world.
Karl Taro Greenfeld’s novel is ostensibly about a group of fathers who meet for coffee after dropping their kids off at PS 234. But Triburbia’s fathers aren’t much of a group. We only see them en masse a couple times, and even then they’re generally pettily resentful of each other; the novel makes do with tracing out the tangled relationships among them through a series of vignettes, each one headed with a street address rather than a name or a title.
So: Mark, the sound engineer, is married to Brooke, who is sleeping with blocked playwright Levi-Levy and used to work with Marni, who is married to fabricating journalist Rick and is professionally connected to the gay photographer whose models include Mark and Brooke’s fourth-grade daughter Cooper, who sharpens her claws on all the other fathers’ daughters, especially the Jewish gangster’s. She’s usually accompanied on look-sees by nanny Sadie, who is the daughter of the failed puppeteer and who one night drinks too much and winds up in bed with Mark, the sound engineer.
But it’s not the cliquishness of his characters, their blinkered privilege or even their predictability that undermine Triburbia. Instead, it’s the errors in continuity and inconsistencies in narration — not to mention the way each chapter reads like an isolated, magazine-pitched short story. The few dozen blocks of Tribeca are more tangible than any of the single-chapter characters, however close they may be to the author’s own circle of acquaintances.
If Greenfeld’s world is small, it’s no less rarefied than the whale-pants and lobster-rolls island of Maggie Shipstead’s Seating Arrangements (Knopf, June 12), which spans the weekend Winn Van Meter gives away daughter Daphne to the eminently suitable Greyson Duff at his summer home on the Nantucket-ish island of Waskeke. Daphne is seven months pregnant; Livia, her sister and maid of honor, cannot get past a bad breakup; and perfect WASP Winn presides over the event with a mixture of repression and resentment, tormented equally by the bridesmaids and the country club that won’t accept his membership.
Dominique, one of the bridesmaids, diagnoses Winn’s problem: the need to be “dividing their community into smaller and smaller fractions, halves of halves, always approaching but never reaching some axis of perfect exclusivity.” Even though she’s correct, here Dominique is one of Shipstead’s very few flaws, giving in to using a character as a megaphone.
Otherwise, Shipstead is admirable and assured at showing the desperation underneath carefully controlled exteriors — gliding from one to the next, registering thoughts and reactions. At Thursday night’s party, she moves from Livia’s admiration of one of the grandmothers (“She wanted to be like Oatsie: imperious, brusque and given to non sequitur”) to an argument with Winn, then comes to rest with Oatsie herself (“When had she become so morbid, so resigned? She didn’t know. . . . What a party guest she was. What terrible vodka the Van Meters had”). Shipstead shows how able she is, not just in lining up these points of view to make a humane and revealing perspective, but to show a hint of sympathetic red in even the bluest blood.