29 January, 2012

Amor Towles - Rules of Civility


With 'Rules of Civility', Towles' debut novel, he presents a moment in time, between the World Wars, redolent of Mad Men, Fitzgerald, and all that JAZZ. Picking the visuals and the timepieces to make it realistic, he focuses on women, love and the sense of identity in the era, all under the harsh and inescapable umbrella that is the human life.

Kathy Kontent is our narrator, looking back at youth, a year of her life in which things changed around quickly, for better and for worse. This narrative has those who come and go - Eve, Dicky, Wallace Wolcott - in minor roles, a supporting cast with some of the best names around in the post-war era. The narrative kick-starts and arguably is held together by the almost unnervingly charismatic Tinker Grey, met during a chance encounter and alluringly '1930s'. The characters in Kathy's (spoken Kon-TENT, like 'the state of being') are thrust into a whirlwind year in this love-letter to Manhattan.

Our cover is infinitely better than this one.
New York is ubiquitous in all art forms, and Towles does not try to add yet another attempt at presenting 'another side' to the city - he resides in the glamour and fabrication of a filmic city. He harks back to the visuals of Gatsby's parties and the offices of Mad Men. In attempting to portray a snapshot of the city, the book contains snapshots of New Yorkers, and the novel contains the motif of photography, in attempting to pinpoint not just the images of ourselves mid-alteration but the images of our feelings and relationships at the time we remember them at their best.

In writing the book, Towles wrote and edited each chapter in two weeks. The brevity of this approach, compared with his luxuriant prose is striking. The confidence in the writing is remarkable - an 'assured debut' as they say. Towles has marked himself down as one to watch, both in the bookselling and the publishing industries (the UK publisher reportedly bid $100,000 on the novel).

Towles, an investment banker in modern day Manhattan.
Written about a time, post-Gatsby, when women were only just being allowed into some restaurants, like the exclusive Club 21, one theme in the book is the men and women divide of the 1930s and the competitiveness in sexual relationships at a time when women were beginning to be a new breed of high-flyers. Lines such as the following show the dichotomous path available to working women of the time, and we witness Kathy's journey first-hand, from a boarding house to her own apartment.

''If I were your age, I wouldn't be trying to figure out how to get into Carrie's [Jake's wife] shoes- I'd be trying to figure out how to get into Jake's.''

Towles took three years to hone the book to what it is. To attempt a New York vernacular, I'll call it a humdinger, and it truly is. A book about the past, and about the course of a human life, with the well-crafted backdrop of hedonism, opportunity and greed, Towles takes the 'Gatsby formula' and does something that doesn't surpass Fitzgerald's work (don't be silly now), but at least can stand proudly beside it. A novel of incompleteness, of social mores and the human condition, this is anything but chick-lit. Dark, funny, old and new - this is one to read in 2012.

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