Life After Truth by Ceridwen Dovey review – lifestyles of the remarkably privileged

A safe and disappointingly domesticated outing for the author of In the Garden of the Fugitives, despite the nods to Trump’s America

Australian author Ceridwen Dovey and her new book Life after Truth.
Australian author Ceridwen Dovey’s new book Life After Truth focuses on a group of close friends all seeking the elusive goal of happiness. Composite: Penguin Random House
Australian author Ceridwen Dovey’s new book Life After Truth focuses on a group of close friends all seeking the elusive goal of happiness. Composite: Penguin Random House
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Last modified on Wed 18 Nov 2020 23.10 EST

Ceridwen Dovey has published to acclaim both fiction (Blood Kin, Only the Animals, In the Garden of the Fugitives), and non-fiction (Writers on Writers: On JM Coetzee and Inner Worlds Outer Spaces: The Working Lives of Others). She moves easily between the parameters of the two forms. Life After Truth is a marked departure from these previous works in terms of tone, style and content. It was inspired by a passage in her youth when she was a scholarship student at Harvard and the subsequent emotional ructions following a reunion there years later.

The novel begins with the Harvard class of 2003 and an anniversary report of five of its alumni 15 years later. Dovey assembles them in middle-adult form, wearing the fancy accoutrements of their achievements. There’s Jomo, now the director of Gem Acquisitions, a purveyor of luxury jewellery. Jules, a famous actress; Eloise, a professor of hedonics (the science of happiness and pleasure), and Mariam and Rowan, a married couple with two preschoolers. She’s a stay-at-home mum; he’s a school principal.

Spanning a few days up to and including the reunion weekend in 2018, this preppy play of modern manners in a contemporary setting is grounded with the scaffold of realism, unlike Dovey’s earlier fictional works. Those are more unsettling, allegorical and fabulistic in timbre, or otherwise historical in ambit: Blood Kin is about three men who are prisoners of a dictator in an unnamed country; Only the Animals consists of stories recounted by the “souls” of animals that have been the victims of human conflict; In the Garden of the Fugitives views Pompeii from an anthropological perspective and South Africa post-apartheid.

Narratively, Life After Truth is safe and remarkably normcore considering Dovey’s previous flights of experimental fancy. The quintet presents a shiny exemplar of their prestigious education. They are the type of liberal do-gooders who, like Rowan, hotfooted it over to “build houses in Guatemala or teach English to new immigrants” as soon as final exams were over every other summer. Though there are some concessions to diversity: Eloise is queer with a younger wife while Jomo is biracial; all are materially rich or at least maintain secure positions on the socioeconomic ladder. Jules’s bank account is commensurate with her success; Jomo travels in the pointy end of the plane on rare gem-hunting expeditions; tenured Eloise receives large advances for her self-help books (The Pursuit of Joy and Seeking Pleasure); her tech-head wife is the beneficiary of a trust fund.

Perhaps what’s stopping these Americans from being smugly insufferable is that despite their personal dramas, each is guiltily aware of their relative luck and comfort. As Eloise muses: “It was the great unsolved mystery of her field, why the things that make us happiest also make us unhappiest. Like alcohol. And family. And spouses. And children.” Jomo knew that he “had no right to judge others too harshly, given that in his own work – creating luxury jewellery for the highest end of the market – he was enriching himself by ravaging the earth.” There’s a little bit of self-conscious satire of their upwardly mobile sensibilities too. New Yorker Mariam sheepishly admits that she’s part of the gentrification that’s colouring the community around her and placates her conscience by being a supporter of a network called “D0-Not-Go-Gentry.”

The two more potentially relatable graduates are the harried parents. Rowan, though gainfully employed – albeit flush with fewer greenbacks – wonders if he’d sacrificed his earning potential by settling for a job as a principal in a low-income public school. His wife, meanwhile, is jealous of the freedoms denied to parents of young children – “All she did was care for others, count her blessings, check her privileges, give more of herself away.”

Narrated in the third person and moving between past and present, the chapters alternate between the protagonists, whose allegiance and intimacy towards each other shift constantly; although oddly, readers are denied the worldview of Jules and she’s reduced to a cipher. She’s modelled on Hollywood star Natalie Portman, who tried to dim her wattage to fit in with the hoi polloi and was an alumna at the time of Dovey’s college attendance.

Dovey also loosely bases another character on Jared Kushner, Donald Trump’s son-in-law, who was also at college when she was, but the narrative skirts around one Frederick Reese. Why exactly he inspires such loathing among his peers is not given much airplay. Even when he comes to grief, the (political) circumstances and ramifications of his gilded life are not explored in any way that would meaningfully illuminate his father’s shady presidency or his own senior advisory role within it. Harvard’s motto is “veritas” (truth) and according to Rowan, citizens of the state have been forced to live in a post-veritas world under the reigning president, which perhaps explains Dovey’s rather amorphous title and the fuzzy treatment of some of her characters.

The other characters orbit around Jules and Frederick, the adored and the reviled, as they navigate perennial problems of late capitalism among the (upper) middle-class: love, family, offspring, career, technology, ageing, religion and posterity. It’s a novel about the quotidian demands of life from a group of close friends all seeking the elusive goal of happiness, in whatever form they can. Life After Truth offers middling distraction but it’s not particularly compelling: instead of Dovey’s characteristic imaginary flair that takes risks, this latest effort feels tame and domesticated.

Life After Truth by Ceridwen Dovey is out now through Viking