Just often enough, some unknown writer darts from the forest of little magazines to publish a novel that blows away the gathering shades of cultural despair. Last year, there was Smith Henderson’s “Fourth of July Creek,” about a social worker in Montana. In April, Viet Thanh Nguyen published a cerebral spy thriller called “The Sympathizer.” This month, that invigorating surprise comes from a 37-year-old New Yorker named Sophie McManus. Her first novel, “The Unfortunates,” merges Old World elegance and modern irony in a brilliant social satire of life among the 1 percent of the 1 percent. The result is a novel about money and how having too much or too little can twist the spine and the spirit. It’s such a trenchant vision of American aristocracy that copies should be printed on Crane stationery and delivered by a white-gloved chauffeur.
McManus attended Vassar and Sarah Lawrence, and her father was the editor in chief of Time Warner, but much of what she describes here far exceeds even the privileges of that upbringing. “The Unfortunates” opens on the 40-room, oceanfront “cottage” of CeCe Somner, a legendary philanthropist who acquired her fortune in the proper way: She inherited it from a rubber baron who sacrificed tens of thousands of natives in the Amazon. Now she lives in a graciously appointed palace, dispersing her wealth through an “octopus of righteousness” to bless the less fortunate and forestall the grossness of the world. Brutally condescending and proudly out of step with modernity, CeCe does not court the society pages of the Times nor crave her own reality TV show. She’s a choleric dragon in a crisp linen dress, wholly unconcerned about her likability.
Indeed, her unpleasantness will put off some readers — simple, sweet people, the true unfortunates, whom those of us who love this novel can look down upon with CeCe’s “calcified politeness.” McManus draws this remarkable woman with such steely precision that one can feel both the sting of receiving her censure and the pleasure of delivering it. She knows and accepts the burdens of superior taste. “The micromanaging one must do to have it right” is exhausting, but CeCe is indefatigable.
Or she was. As the story begins, her control over the realm has been shaken in the most intimate way. The progressive symptoms of some Parkinson’s-like disease threaten to incapacitate her. But even at 75, CeCe rejects the possibility of death as vigorously as she refuses to tolerate garish sweaters. When word comes of an experimental drug that might quell her increasing tremors, she issues commands to re-create a simulacrum of her home at the research center before she arrives to bully the nurses and doctors during her months-long treatment.
This section provides McManus a rich setting in which to explore the complicated relationship between money and medicine, that rare arena in which the super-rich cannot exercise the total control they’re used to enjoying. For CeCe, the humiliations of being sick and the frustrations of following rules only sharpen her wicked tongue. “The room is fine,” she tells the staff when she arrives. “Although I don’t like how the photos have been arranged. And I don’t like anything else.” Later, in the dining room: “ ‘The napkins are maroon,’ she said, with a quiet and sage disgust, as if their color foretold all humanity’s pending grief.” (If that doesn’t strike you as hilarious, tell Jeeves to get your coat and head back to Martha’s Vineyard.)
For all our obsession with the wealthy, it’s not a world most of us really know, except perhaps from the work of Louis Auchincloss, the lawyer who spied on his moneyed class in more than two dozen finely crafted novels. F. Scott Fitzgerald was too in love with meretricious excess to scrape away the romantic gilt. McManus, with her intricate re-creation of CeCe’s regal life, hearkens to an earlier artist far less frequently invoked: Edith Wharton.
Unfortunately, our capacity to hear the frequency of Wharton’s wit has decayed amid the blare of broader, louder comic voices. She’s far wittier than Henry James or William Dean Howells (who has nearly vanished), but when I was teaching, my students had no ear for Wharton’s humor. (That young people experience her now — if they experience her at all — through the dreary “Ethan Frome” is another disappointment.) At her best, though, Wharton captures the tragicomic ways that character and class interact, and it’s just that moral calculus that McManus figures so accurately.
Even as CeCe bends medical science to her well-funded will, there remains someone beyond her total control: Her handsome, 40-year-old son, George. “A child of lonesome vice,” George has long vacillated between feelings of grandiosity and uselessness, spinning CeCe through cycles of leniency and regret. When he showed signs of mental illness, she roused a troupe of doctors to his treatment. When he assaulted a young woman at Yale, CeCe obliterated the charges with a timely donation. When he married a waitress, she installed the mismatched newlyweds in a glass house on her property. But now that she’s confined to the campus of a distant medical center, George’s narcissism can enjoy free rein again. For his naive wife, who imagines that just maybe the very rich are not so different from you and me, life is about to spin out of control in ways she cannot imagine.
Unbeknownst to anyone, George has been spending a (borrowed) fortune to produce his own opera about the end of civilization. This bombastic spectacle — complete with drones, a chorus of eunuchs and a monstrous Oedipal queen — reflects his manic-depressive egomania more clearly than he realizes, and McManus’s merciless description of it is some of the funniest writing I’ve read in years: Martin Amis funny; wheezing, choke-on-your-laughter funny.
If other sections of “The Unfortunates” are less riotous, almost every sentence here has been worked, through a decade of composition and revision, into a jeweled strand of dry wit. After reading so many comic novels that eventually shatter in brittle cynicism or evaporate in gassy sentimentality, I moved through “The Unfortunates” with a slowly accruing sense of awe as these characters grew simultaneously more outrageous and more sympathetic.
If there’s something distinctly old-fashioned about the novel’s focus on an antique class of American aristocrats, McManus has woven her story right into our modern financial history with all its outsize promises and temptations. As the end approaches, the humor drains out through hairline fractures in the plot, until “The Unfortunates” finally rests on a profoundly tragic vision of the true costs of wealth.
There may be things beyond CeCe’s control, but not McManus’s.
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.
For more on The Washington Post’s book coverage, go to washingtonpost.com/books.
By Sophie McManus
Farrar Straus Giroux. 356 pp. $26