September 21, 2000

Quit Playing Games with My Heart

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In a short piece for the latest edition of Fashions of the Times, the novelist Caitlin Macy recounts living a life like Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, showing her talent for detail in creating atmosphere. She clearly conveys the squalor of Chelsea, the area she inhabitated before the publication of her novel, The Fundamentals of Play. She describes her wardrobe and the creations designed for her by Albert Sakhai in a manner that is both vivid and personally revealing.

It is a wonder, then, that her first novel, The Fundamentals of Play, should be utterly lacking in place and character details. The novel is set in New York City, a place that, whether depicted in a positive or negative light, abounds in sights, smells, and sounds. Yet, Macy’s setting seems so nondescript, save for references to a downtown club or uptown diner, that it could just as well be any other American city.

As for the characters, Macy reveals as little about their thoughts, drives, and emotions as she does about their external appearances. Just as the reader only knows that one is blonde, another awkward in stature, and another tanned, he or she is also left wondering why these characters behave as they do in various situations.

The narrator, George Lenhart, tells the story of his post-college life, interwoven with various flashbacks. His friends include Chat Wethers, a scion of the established wealth, and Harry Lombardi, an entrepeneur fashioned in the style of Bill Gates. But the focal point of the novel is Kate Goodenaw, a WASP-y Yale graduate who works at Sotheby’s and is the object of desire for all of the major and minor male characters in the novel.

It’s not that these plot elements wouldn’t make for a good story; in fact, as the book jacket suggests, they already have in the famous novel, The Great Gatsby. Parallels can be drawn at great length, but the basic relationship between The Fundamentals of Play and Gatsby is that George Lenhart, as both participant in and commentator of scenes, as the man who is “within and without,” bears a remarkable resemblance to Nick Carraway, the Gatsby narrator.

Of course, one might say that Harry, the Internet magnate, is an updated version of Gatsby, but Nick Beale, the working-class sailor from Kate’s summers in Maine, also resembles Gatsby. Furthermore, Chat represents the very traditions Tom Bucannan stood for, in as much as Kate is an urbanized Daisy.

This parallel to Gatsby seems unusual since there really isn’t much for Macy to adapt from a novel that was already modern for its time. Maybe the latter day version of the nouveau riche is the Internet startup tycoon, and maybe the established society is becoming much more tolerant as to accept a marriage between the two groups. However, the tensions created by such a union and the portrait of the young, beautiful, wealthy and damned is not going to come across as fresh material with the slight innovations that Macy supplies.

One thing that can be said in favor of the novel is that it does maintain one’s interest from the start, but the rocky climax occurs too close to the end of the novel. And, too often, Macy stirs up excitement in her foreshadowing only to leave the reader with a disappointment, as in the case of the story of Nick’s past.

Macy does present some ideas that are worth pondering though. For example, there is a wonderful passage in which Kate and George encounter a young sailor who resembles Nick and they expect him to automatically behave like him because he is “that type.” However, this idea cannot truly be realized in a novel composed of characters who are so obviously “types” themselves.

Readers at an Ivy League University may find themselves able to relate very well to depictions of college life in this novel, whether they associate with the hedonistic characters who partake in the “fundamentals of play” (i. e., drunken reveries and skinny- dipping in a fountain at night) or with the more ambitious characters who wake up on Saturday mornings, condemning the slackers who are still sleeping. And, surely everyone knows someone like Kate — the rich, thin, blonde that is envied by all the girls and worshipped by all the guys. Taken on the whole, this novel is at least worth reading. However, it may be better to wait for the upcoming movie based upon it, which will, by its nature, be able to reveal the physical details of people and place that the novel obscures.

Archived article by Lisa Dorfman