Book review: “Palladio” by Jonathan Dee

Those nice people at Constable & Robinson sent me a copy of Jonathan Dee’s early novel, “Palladio” to review (originally published in 2002 in the USA, it is being released in tandem with his new book “The Privileges”).

A dual narrative occupies the first two thirds of the novel, following the affectless Molly Howe from a small-town adolescence and into an adult life that she treats as little more than an opportunity for increasingly fraught emotional experiments. The other strand of the narrative follows John Wheelwright, an ad-man in a successful New York company who feels creatively paralysed by his work, but who’s polite Southern upbringing won’t allow him to express his dissatisfaction either to his girlfriend Rebecca or his work partner Roman. As Molly embarks on an ill-advised affair with the husband of the woman who hires her to babysit their children, John decides to take up the offer of new employment in a radically different advertising company run by the enigmatic Mal Osbourne, a former partner in his current firm. Splitting up with Rebecca and relocating back down to his home state Virginia, John finds himself working for a man who despises advertising and everything it represents, but who wants to harness its unparalleled creative reach to destroy the reflexive irony that he believes has poisoned contemporary society. Mal hires a select team of artists and writers and installs them in an old antebellum mansion, giving them carte blanche to create whatever they like. His new company, Palladio, aims to change the world through a studious rejection of everything that advertising assumes – in particular, the knowledge on the part of the audience that they are being manipulated, and the knowledge on the part of the advertisers that the audience knows it’s being manipulated. Companies that seek Palladio’s services aren’t given pitches, and the creative team aren’t even told what company they are designing an advertising campaign for. There is no “campaign”, only spectacular pieces of unattributed public art, which slowly, through hype, confusion, and a kind of creative osmosis, become associated with whichever company has paid for it.

By the end of this section we realise that we’ve not been reading two parallel narratives at all, but rather two stories that start off ten years apart, and that slowly converge. When Molly arrives in California after her small-town affair is exposed, she soon meets John when he was a young art student. John is the one man she has met who seems unwilling to impose an image or a template on top of her, and although their relationship holds out some kind of promise for Molly, she soon walks out on him without any explanation. John doesn’t see her again for ten years, until she walks into his office at Palladio with her new lover, a filmmaker who is keen to make a documentary about the company. From the moment Molly appears, Palladio is doomed and John Wheelwright’s painfully acquired professional equilibrium is shattered.

A staff writer for the New York Times Magazine, a creative writing tutor at the New School and Columbia, you would expect Dee to operate within the same ultra-hip, pseudo-experimental aesthetic as the McSweeney’s crowd, but “Palladio”, in the coded reference of its title and in the execution of the novel itself, inhabits more of the classic tradition of American literature. With elegant and controlled prose, the novel recalls Cheever and Richard Yates in its delineation of small-town life and American prosperity derailed through its own hypocrisy and contradiction. Molly, for all her apathy and the near-comotose disregard she has for herself, emerges as a superbly rounded character, and you can tell how fascinated Dee is with her. The word “Palladio” refers to the Italian architect Andrea Palladio, whose sixteenth century classicism was a major influence on architectural design in the early years of the American nation. Thomas Jefferson was a particular fan, and Jeffersonian motifs run throughout the novel, from Mal’s obsessive collecting of Jefferson memorabilia, to the very structure of the antebellum mansion in which Palladio has housed its offices. What Dee seems to be pointing to here is the distance the USA has come from its sober republican origins, to its disgustingly indulgent and materialist present, a present that cannot even confront the meaning of its excess but has to hide it behind an omnipresent mask of irony. In this society, people smirk at adverts that treat the audience like idiots, because the audience knows it is being treated like an idiot, and the advertisers knows that it knows, und so weiter. This is sick and unhealthy, but Mal’s attempt to disrupt this dominant paradigm contains the seeds of its own smug excess.

The presence that looms most completely above the novel’s achievement though is that of Jonathan Franzen. The author of “The Corrections” and, most recently “Freedom”, has colonised much of this conceptual territory, and has a talent that most writers must be content to labour in the shadow of. “Palladio” does not approach the heights as Franzen at his best (which is nothing to be ashamed of), but this is still an excellent and satisfying novel, written with great poise. In the end, as the characters hive off towards what on the surface could seem like stunted and unfulfilled lives, it even becomes strangely uplifting.

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