Characters’ rejection of their selves in these two books lead to different places. In Veblen, compromise occurs, thanks only to a car crash that leads to a mild psychic break and a fondness for talking to squirrels in Paul. In Private Citizens, all four of the major characters fail in their striving: Linda’s archetypal rebellion dissipates into academic longing, Cory’s non-profit ambitions go awry and she boomerangs home, Henrik is too medicated or mentally ill to choose anything other than milquetoast stability, and Will is physically altered out of himself, the horrorshow conclusion of one’s running so fast and so far from home.
Conspicuously absent from both of these novels is any lengthy acknowledgment of the gentrifying world in which they live; there are no bar fights between Glassholes and townies, no protests against tech buses — just general myopia. Veblen even makes a conscious effort to play up the nature of California, such as when Veblen gets engaged at a “mossy escarpment in a ring of eucalyptus,” or, in a passage that maybe hints at Veblen being — gasp! — a hipster (though she is not as much of a hippie as this thought implies):
In April the days warmed fully, demanding new exploits. A thinning scrim of wildlife rustled in the coastal mountains’ hidden gullies and groves. Bobcats, coyotes, raccoons, skunks, and possums still foraged the damp forests above the peninsula, between the ocean and the bay.
By contrast, Palo Alto was now a community of unimaginable material wealth and prestige, and traces of old, humble Palo Alto were growing scarce. What others wished to raze, Veblen cherished. What others saw as rundown, Veblen saw as real.
Not all of the characters in these books participate in tech culture, but all of them benefit from it, directly or indirectly. Veblen, as much as she loves nature, has little monetary concerns, thanks to Paul’s job; in Citizens, rich tech guy Will floats all of his friends at one point or another. Through simple proximity they’ve chosen to live a tech-filled life, though at this point in history it might be impossible to do otherwise.
Early in McKenzie’s book, Veblen asks herself a question: “Could you look at all interactions that way, as a presentation of the self, an advertisement of sorts?” She answers herself, “Oh, cut it out.” This is the brain of someone not on Twitter or Facebook or Instagram, who is uninterested in capitalism but not invested enough to criticize it as heartily as Thorstein. She and Paul are complicit in their inaction. The four protagonists of Private Citizens, on the other hand, relish in the destruction of everything, Cory at one point even willing to destroy the notion of philanthropy for her own gain. She and all of her friends employ slash-and-burn as their prime method of inner growth, 49ers who mine with tweets rather pickaxes. Yet, is that any worse than Veblen and Paul, who enjoy a place but do nothing to conserve it? Are the spaced-out gentrifiers of the world worse than the all-or-nothing post-grad crusaders of Private Citizens? If these two books are any indication, the answer is “maybe,” but there are no winners, and human sustainability is off the table, barring the moment in which all critically thinking, educated people are struck by cars and transformed into wide-eyed squirrel whisperers.