The thing about Class is that I don’t know what the hell to think about it, yet I can’t stop thinking about it. I’ll begin by dispensing with the usual info that one may want to know when considering adding the book to their “to read” list. Written by Francesco Pacifico. Translated by Francesco Pacifico. Published by Melville House. Set in Rome and New York. Specific Roman neighborhood of note: Pigneto. New York neighborhood of note: Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Does that matter? Apparently, yes.
And this is perhaps my way into Class (that was fun to type). Understanding a neighborhood and its denizens is key to understanding what an author like Pacifico may be up to in a book as odd as Class. Williamsburg in Class is the nexus of Italian hipsters. They meet, take drugs, laugh, fuck, grow weary, leave, return. It’s the sort of place that bohemians with varying degrees of talent flock to, bringing the first wave of gentrification. First wave gentrifiers often bemoan their cherished neighborhoods’ shift into commercial areas where moms push doublewide strollers into Lululemon. While they fail to see their role in the gentrification process, readers of their exploits are, allegedly, in on the secret. Dramatic irony notwithstanding, Class doesn’t seem concerned with judging the hipsters, even when they get up to some questionable activities. The reader is supposed to suspend that sort of moralizing. If that is impossible, the reader is screwed. Abandon the text ye who need redeeming characters.
Recently, Pacifico stated that the “problem with American books is that there must always be something moral and sympathetic happening between characters.” He may be onto something there, and I must admit that it’s refreshing to read a novel where manufactured sympathy is chucked. Nevertheless, Class confirmed my suspicion that the shallowness of hipsters is universal. That the Italians in Class are so informed by American culture, that they travel across the Atlantic to the hipster mecca of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, suggests a larger point about cultural hegemony, though I don’t feel comfortable forcing such an argument on Pacifico’s book.
But let’s look at this for a moment. One of the characters, Lorenzo, is a would-be filmmaker whose sole effort is a pretentious short film that bites off Tarantino, the Coen Brothers, and scores of other hip influences. Another character, Marcello, is an aspiring rapper emulating American MCs. The one American we meet is James Murphy, a novelist in the vein of Franzen and Wallace, though his name is, of course, the same as the frontman of LCD Soundsystem, as hipster a band as one can find. Murphy’s work is criticized by the main narrator (more on that in a minute) and later, when the reader gets a peek into his notes, one gets the impression that Murphy is an aging hipster coasting off marginal talent. Oddly, the superficiality of these characters is what made me want to keep reading Class, even when they infuriated me. If they are products of a self-emulating culture that has now exported its cool shallowness, then great—Pacifico has made a grand statement. If not, if my reading is wrong (likely), then I’ll revert to the old reader-response cop-out and call it a day. In short: looking for one simple moral or overarching argument in Class is probably silly. But, American reader that I am, I looked anyway.
The narrator? For most of the book it’s Daria: Marxist sometime lover of Nicolino, the playboy of the group. Daria oversees events via the time-honored tradition of omniscient narrator, though quite literally: she sees into people’s thoughts. There are times when she can’t and has to make do providing half a conversation, pointing directly to the absurdity of fixed narration in fiction. Shortly after we’re finally introduced to her—well into the book—she leaves us, the narration taken over by another character before shifting again in a sort of montage. All of this occurs without warning and would be baffling were Pacifico not in possession of a deft hand. This unfixed narration is perhaps my favorite aspect of Class. I prefer it to a novel that feels slavishly devoted to presenting a reliable narrator.
Formal ambition helps this book, and the documentary that results is presented without overt sermonizing. Class may be a social commentary, a weirdly funny look at Italian hipsters, or a larger statement on cultural influence. The kaleidoscope of characters, whose actions and drives are never one-dimensional, eludes easy classification, which makes the entire book a joy. I found myself both rooting for these individuals and delighting in their ruin. Few books can get me to do that. But few books dare go where Class goes. The result is a shaggy, far-reaching, occasionally exasperating, consistently engaging book that is happier leaving an impression than making a grand statement. It’s a testimony to the possibilities of the contemporary novel.