Please join us Tuesday from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. for a live discussion of “This Beautiful Life,” by Helen Schulman. Readers who would like to share a thought or question, should do so in the comments box below.
A regular discussion with Ginia Bellafante.
Today, we are discussing Helen Schulman’s latest book, “This Beautiful Life,” which imagines a worst-case scenario between two New York City teenagers — one affluent, and the other unspeakably wealthy — who encounter each other at a party. Social media is a major player in the narrative but so, too, is the familiar territory of moneyed New York — a place where the culture of “helicopter parenting” both thrives and disappears, where the phenomenally rich often choose to leave their children to take care of themselves. The book offers a powerful sense of collision between these two worlds. It is a sociological effort that reads as though it were a thriller.
Recently, I sat down to talk with Ms. Schulman, a novelist and professor of creative writing at the New School, about her choice of subject. (Ms. Schulman later added to some of her answers via e-mail.) I’d like to hear your response to the themes of the books and to Ms. Schulman’s points here. What do people fear most about bringing up teenagers in New York? How do the vast class disparities in New York affect our psyches? Is the world Ms. Schulman describes spot-on? Exaggerated? So, we begin:
Your novel is, to a great extent, about the mess and muck of privilege in New York City. Tell me how you came to choose this topic for you book.
There was a moment of real grace in New York right after 9/11. I was extremely moved by the displays of generosity in the city. People did amazing things for one another. If you went to another part of the world, you were proud to be a New Yorker. We showed ourselves to be a city capable of an enormous compassion. So much of that was squandered during the Bush years. We became a culture in pursuit of greed and materialism. We lost sight, as a country, of our moral principles. While I see “This Beautiful Life” as a book about many things — the earthquake of the Internet; the end of forgetting; a sometimes disquieting embrace of older sex roles; the earlier and earlier sexualization of girls — it is also, I hope, a bit of a time capsule regarding the post 9/11, pre-recession years, in America and in New York (ground zero again) and the vibrato of what came after.
The story revolves around two private-school teenagers — Daisy and Jake — who fall, rather haplessly into an Internet porn scandal. This could happen anywhere of course. What did you imagine was different about this sort of thing happening in Manhattan?
I was interested in the way that the Internet has so dramatically eroded our privacy. This is happening everywhere obviously, all over the country, in towns large and small. But in the old days what happens to the two teenage characters in the book — a girl gifting a sexual image of herself to a boy — would have had more containable consequences. Girls’ reputations have been ruined since the beginning of time, it seems, but families might have worked things out between themselves, or moved away, or two dads could have beaten each other up at the local bar.
Certainly, a scandal like this could have resulted in some violence. But now with the click of a button and social media and all the rest, that image can go viral and have an audience around the world practically instantaneously. I wanted to explore this kind of scenario in New York, at the nexus of power and media and money and parents willing and able to pull out the big guns. What happens to Daisy and Jake is far bigger than either one of them, or their teenage missteps — the punishment being totally out of scale with the “crime.”
The patriarch of the family in your novel is a bigwig administrator at a university that is explicitly modeled after Columbia. He is embarking on an initiative to develop Manhattanville. Columbia has been expanding throughout Harlem. What does this expansion say to you about the life of the city now and what did you see as novelistic (for lack of a better term) about it?
I am very interested in urban planning — perhaps because my sister-in-law, Susan Handy, is a professor of environmental science and policy, and in discussion over the years she has alerted me to those issues. There was a tremendous amount of growth in Manhattan at the turn of this century, and much of it was filled with missed opportunities (the Trump buildings on the West Side are a perfect example; all those apartments filled with families and no new public school was part of the deal).
I love the area of Manhattanville — we used to park our car up there — the winds sweeping off the river, the old warehouse buildings, the elevated subway line. I think it is very beautiful. It was smart of Columbia to target the area, a bridge between their two campuses and a chance to develop and enrich not only their own programs but the city at large. The trick for them, and shaded differently for my own fictive university, is in developing this area correctly — historically, not Columbia’s strong suit, but far from an impossible endeavor. And yet there are so many obvious pitfalls in terms of the surrounding community, including issues of eminent domain. It seemed like a good project for Richard, the father in my book, to be part of, because of his good intentions and his hunger for success and interest in power. It provided him a very interesting academic and real-world exercise, all while walking a moral tightrope.
Most of your novels have been set in New York and you are a native. What do you experience as the most significant change in the city from the time of your own adolescent years?
I am 50 years old and I grew up on the East Side and live now on the West Side, so I am a lifer, and I guess New York as both subject and weather does play a big role in some of my books — the last two being books that I view in some ways as historical fiction — “A Day at the Beach” which takes place in the 24 hours following 9/11 and “This Beautiful Life,” which at some point got so zeitgeisty I had to fix it in 2003 just to get a handle on my material, which was changing shape all the time. Recently while riding the subway I have had nostalgic blasts from my youth when I see how many homeless and mentally ill people have returned to the subterranean life and when I wait endlessly on the platform for a train. The ’70s in New York City have been well documented, and we clearly did not have the goods and services then that we’ve had in the past two decades.
Growing up, I was afraid to walk in Riverside Park, for example. Now it is so beautiful I try to walk there several days a week just to breathe some fresh air. In many ways the city is cleaner and is much safer than when I was young. But it has also become far more expensive — pushing out many of the citizens who make it great — and more heartless. While there are still vibrant pockets of middle-class life in the outer boroughs, Manhattan’s middle-class bastions have shrunk. Every year for economic reasons my grad students have to move farther and farther away.