Rules of Civility by Amor Towles

Posted by @ 2:23 pm on May 20th, 2011

In order to talk about a book I am certain will make many of the “best” lists this year, and one I loved, I’m also going to need to talk about three things I really hate in novels–epigraphs, prefaces or prologues, and epilogues.

When I read an epigraph or a series of epigraphs in the front matter of a novel, or even worse, at the beginning of a short story or poem, I then spend an unfortunate amount of my reading time trying to make sense of the importance of that epigraph. Is the epigraph a commentary on the writing or the story to be told? Is the epigraph a commentary on the writer or the reader? For better or worse, the use of an epigraph shapes and informs how we read the story that follows. There is an implication by the epigraph’s very existence, that the story cannot exist without the imprimatur of the wise or witty words of someone else. I never find the relevance of an epigraph no matter how hard I try. Epigraphs seem to be an indulgence on the part of the writer. Sometimes I read epigraphs and think, “Well, now you’re just showing off how well read you are,” particularly when the epigraph comes from some obscure text perhaps three people have read. I am even more vexed by biblical epigraphs. It makes me wonder if there is some spiritual agenda to the book I’m about to read and if I don’t quite understand the biblical verse I begin to wonder about the disposition of my immortal soul. It is all very stressful.

I am equally troubled by prefaces. When I see the word “preface” or “prologue” my natural inclination is to assume that the writer feels there is a need to sit down and have a chat with me before I read their book. With a preface, the implication is that there are a set of rules you need to make sense of before you can fully appreciate the writing to follow. If I really want to read a book and I see that there’s a preface, I simply pretend that the preface is what it should be–Chapter 1. While there are many arguments that can be made in favor of a preface, I would like to argue, vehemently, against the use of prefaces. I do not understand why, after a writer has written an entire book, they feel the need to backpedal and tell the reader, “Wait, before you get started, there are some things I need you to know.” As a reader, I want those “things I need to know,” to be built into the narrative. Don’t tell me a story before you tell me your story. Simply tell me your story. I have a bit more tolerance for an epilogue because, in a really good book, I don’t want the story to end. I want to know what happens next. I want to know about the story beyond the story, but epilogues can be troubling too, because at times, they give the impression of a writer who is unable to bring a work to it’s right and proper conclusion.

I share these strangely passionate opinions on epigraphs and prefaces/prologues/epilogues because Rules of Civility by Amor Towles, out in July from Viking, has a trifecta of elements I hate in books—an epigraph, a preface, and an epilogue. I was instantly concerned and predisposed to hating the book on principle. Upon finishing the book I am even more convinced I am right about epigraphs, prefaces, and epilogues, because this book did not need those elements to succeed.

The great news, though, is that despite these elements, Rules of Civility is a gorgeous, gorgeous must-read book that is an engaging story and a love letter to New York and writing about New York, just before the mid-century. The writing reflects the writer’s meticulous understanding of the tradition of writing preceding him, particularly the work of Fitzgerald and my beloved Edith Wharton. As I read the book I often thought, “This writer is a man who has read The Age of Innocence.” There is a dense, cinematic quality to the writing in Rules of Civility. No detail of life in New York City during the late 1930s is overlooked. From the first page, the reader is taken on a gin and champagne-soaked tour of Manhattan through the eyes of a Brighton Beach girl, Katey Kontent, who is making her way in the big city and reaching, reaching for something grander than New York society would otherwise allow her to have.

Katey Kontent is one of the most interesting female characters I’ve read in a long time and I give real credit to Towles for bringing this character to life in the way that he did. Kontent is smart, both pragmatic and somewhat of a dreamer, unabashed, witty, always able to come up with a clever retort. She never expresses any shame over her working class, immigrant upbringing in Brighton Beach, nor does she demonstrate any sort of mealy-mouthed deference to her social “betters.” That, ultimately, is the source of this character’s and the book’s immense charm.

Rules of Civility tells the story of Katey and her best friend Eve who meet New York banker Tinker Grey, at a jazz club on New Years Eve (“How the WASPs loved to nickname their children after the workaday trades: Tinker. Cooper. Smithy. Maybe it was to hearken back to their seventeenth-century New England bootstraps–the manual trades that had made them stalwart and humble and virtuous in the eyes of their Lord. Or maybe it was just a way of politely understating their predestination to having it all.”). The three immediately hit it off, both Katey and Eve vying for Tinker’s attention and affection so that they might someday leave the boarding house where they share a room and their jobs as legal secretaries. There’s an accident and Eve is seriously injured. Wracked with guilt, Tinker invites Eve to move in with him even though it’s clear he holds the most affection for Katey. Before long Eve and Tinker are in a relationship, Katey has moved into an apartment on her own, and the novel follows the next year of their lives, mostly Katey’s as she makes friends with the upper class and begins to move in their circles, and eventually becomes an editorial assistant for a new magazine, Gotham, about to debut under the leadership of a demanding, engagingly tyrannical editor. In the end, Katey learns that Tinker both is and is not the man she thought him to be and along the way meets what is so often referred to as a “colorful cast of characters,” who teach her all manner of things about life and love, wealth and status.

The story being told in Rules of Civility is simple and one that has been told before but what really elevates this book is the manner in which the story is told. The writing is richly descriptive, almost lush, and Towles has crafted sentences that demonstrate genuine care for the building blocks of a great novel. The book never gives in unduly to emotion. There is plenty of drama but the story is never weakened by unnecessary dramatics. After Tinker and Katey share a kiss, just before he and Eve become a couple, there is this moment: “I freed my hands and put a palm on the smooth skin of his cheek, taking comfort in the well-counseled patience for that which bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and most importantly endures them.” It is a quiet, lovely moment and the bittersweetness of it really comes through.There are many such moments throughout the novel.

Later in the novel, Katey runs into Anne Grandin, who has been introduced as Tinker’s godmother, a wealthy society woman, and when Katey asks if Grandin disapproves of Tinker and Eve’s relationship, Grandin says, “Certainly not in the Victorian sense. I have no illusions about the liberties of our times. In fact, if pressed I would celebrate most of them.” The sophistication and wit of these characters almost threatens to feel unbelievable but Towles manages to exercise nice control over the libertine natures of his characters and the unapologetic ways in which they indulge themselves and those around them.

Often times, Katey Kontent’s wry observations take on the quality of aphorisms. When discussing one of her co-workers, a Charlotte Sykes who can type 100 words a minute, Kate observes, “be careful when choosing what you’re proud of–because the world has every intention of using it against you.”

I could probably quote nearly every line in this book as one that is memorable or beautiful or smart. The only misstep (other than the unholy trifecta) was the three or four sections where the novel shifts from Katey as the protagonist to Tinker Grey as the protagonist. These sections are very brief, and if they were not included, they would not be missed which means they are not necessary. That said, as a debut novel, Rules of Civility is a real wonder and I’m excited to read it again, and again. Rules of Civility was a real surprise and I took great pleasure in seeing a modern novel do something fresh with a style of writing we often assume has fallen by the wayside. Edith Wharton would be proud.

But alas, we return to this matter of epigraphs, prefaces and epilogues. I remain baffled as to why these elements are included in this novel. The epigraph is a biblical verse that is, indeed, poetic but does it enrich the novel in any way? Does it really inform the novel in some way? Absolutely not. The narrative frame established in the preface, presents Katey as a much older woman, attending a photography exhibit with her husband where she sees two photos of Tinker Grey taken a year apart, and then, suddenly, we’re taken back in time. I cannot help but feel that this is a cheap, cheap introduction into the novel, and it is a real disservice to a novel this exceptionally good.  At the end of the novel, the epilogue catches us up on everything that happened to the most significant people Katey encountered during the year of her life this novel details and then returns us to the present with Katey back in her apartment with her husband in bed as she stands on her balcony reflecting on her history. I did not mind learning what happened to the characters to whom I had grown attached but to be jarringly thrust back into the present and to cheapen the beauty of this novel by framing it as wistful nostalgia is a creative choice that’s going to trouble me for some time.

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