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Triburbia by Karl Taro Greenfeld

January 14, 2017 12 comments

Triburbia by Karl Taro Greenfeld (2011) French title: Triburbia. Translated by Françoise Adelstain.

greenfeld_triburbiaTriburbia relates the quotidian of a group of fathers in Tribeca, Lower Manhattan, New York. Tribeca was an industrial neighborhood until the 1970s. In the 1980s, artists started to live in lofts in this area as the rents were cheap. It then became a trendy place where a lot of influential people live.

Triburbia is a mosaic of stories about self-analysis, marriages and children, a sort of chick lit told from a male point of view. These fathers are writer, sound engineer, gangster, photographer, … Not blue collar, not white collar either, part of an undefined class I’ll call artistic. These men have jobs with flexible hours and meet for breakfast in a café after dropping the children to school. That’s how they met, actually, through their offspring going to the same school.

They all arrived in Tribeca before it was trendy and witnessed the gentrification of the neighborhood. They have the classic angst seen in chick lit: how’s my marriage doing? Shall cheat with M. X’s wife? How are my children compared to others? Am I getting old? Am I successful? Where did my dream go? They’re as vapid as the characters of Notting Hell by Rachel Johnson.

What makes a big difference with chick lit though, is Greenfeld’s style. I read him in French, so I don’t have quotes but he has a knack for colorful and humorous descriptions. If you want to discover his style, have a look at Guy’s review, here.

Although Greenfeld gives a good picture of the gentrification process of Tribeca but I couldn’t muster a lot of interest for these self-absorbed men, their snotty daughters or their wives. They have unconventional professions, crave for success and despise people who have regular jobs, especially bankers, accountants and the like. (We’re in Manhattan, remember, so high paying job often involve working in the finance industry) Finance is too grown-up, not glamorous enough. I found them judgmental, snobbish and shallow. Having children is not a good enough reason to stop smoking pot or behaving like teenagers.

The book is divided in chapters whose titles are the address of the character who stars in it. It is a way to show how snobbish people are, the location of your loft matters. We discover this little microcosm, how people are linked to one another. The characters pop up from one chapter to the other as the reader makes the links between the members of this tribe. They are under pressure to be rich with an artistic job, which isn’t easy to achieve. These men don’t admire Hemingway and his Moveable Feast. They have no admiration for filthy poor but underestimated artists, they only have admiration for artists who are as rich as a hedge fund managers. In other words, they want to have their cake and eat it: the liberty to create with the financial wealth of a yuppie job.

In the end, this milieu is as codified and rigid as the bourgeoisie. The codes are different, that’s all. You must be rich but appear not to care about money. You must live as if common rules didn’t apply to you: it’s not a big deal if the children are late to school, or if you do drugs. You must live in a loft. They are supposed to be free of social codes but they just created new ones, the live-as-a-cool-and-successful-artistic-family code. The biggest difference with their bourgeois counterparts is that they don’t have trophy wives. These men have married women with successful careers, women who didn’t give up their jobs when their first child was born to become stay-at-home mothers and PTA wonders.

This Tribeca tribe questions their life choices and for the most, their career happened by chance. They had an opportunity, they seized it or drifted from their original dream to something else. They cheat on their partner but don’t necessary want a divorce. They realize that their couple may not be so great, that their family might be a façade. To me, they looked like a team of immature Peter Pans who think they are superior to others but have the same mid-life crisis as anyone.

Triburbia has good critics but I thought it was as futile as its characters. I always have trouble sympathizing with self-indulgent trendy-lefties who look down on non-artistic people. It’s a form of haughtiness that is not becoming. The gentrification process of the neighborhood was interesting to follow, as traditional shops are pushed to close or move out as rents increase. Greenfeld’s writing is the redeeming quality of the novel. He really nailed Tribeca’s inhabitants with a great sense of humor.

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