To spend earliest adulthood in New York is to be cowed and inspired by a place where literally millions of people are smarter, better looking, and more successful than you can hope to be. Doubly so for people who come here from elsewhere, like the protagonists of Anna Pitoniak’s debut novel, The Futures, which seeks to apply perspective to recent local history — the fresh wounds of the 2008 recession — through the story of a young, dazzled couple who ultimately fail to weather the storm.
Julia and Evan, newly minted Yale grads, decamp to the Upper East Side in the perilous summer of 2008, a few weeks before Evan’s start date at a prestigious hedge fund. Each afforded a taste of the Big Apple and subjected to extensive time apart, the couple find their relationship fissuring when Evan, a Canadian innocent on a work visa, is cornered by an executive to help swing a shady foreign deal. With so many layers of character origin, The Futures is, variously, a campus novel, a Wall Street caper, a bildungsroman, and the saga of a long, slow breakup.
But the most interesting element is that, in attempting to take stock of the financial crisis, Pitoniak (an editor at Random House) is among the first novelists to try to articulate the Bloomberg era’s significance. Following in the footsteps of classic debut novels like Rona Jaffe’s The Best of Everything and Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City, she charts a tumultuous period in New York City history that transforms a group of recent college grads in ways they never anticipated. As in Kristopher Jansma’s latest, Why We Came to the City, also set in the heady days of 2008, Pitoniak’s ingenuous youths are helpless against the risk and potential they perceive lurking around each corner.
With pivotal scenes unfolding in hotel bars, tense investment meetings, and a jarringly opulent benefit gala, The Futures is grounded in an identifiable, if not fully representative, version of Bloomberg’s New York. Yet among chapters set in Manhattan, New Haven, and the couple’s hometowns, a tangible sense of place is fleeting, with breathless jumps from thinly sketched apartment to coffee shop to boardroom. The predictable setups and environs make too universal what should be an only-in–New York landscape of high stakes, high culture, and larger-than-life characters. As Evan’s industry implodes and funding dwindles at the nonprofit where Julia works, the crisis might just as easily be happening in a distant land — out of sight, if not quite out of mind.
With so many pressures facing the couple, the temporal setting of economic collapse manages to seem somehow peripheral at times. Pitoniak’s grating tactic of alternating first-person narrators on a chapter-by-chapter basis (Evan’s percolate, while Julia’s drag) results in extraneous reiterations of the same scenes, and The Futures suffers from perfunctory dialogue and a flashback-laden narrative that sags during long passages of self-reflection. By casting the protagonists’ plights within a tale of circumstance, the recession’s impact is frequently minimized.
A recurrent theme, almost obligatory in a novel like this, is the precariousness of privilege. Yet each of the characters lands a job through propitious personal connections. As 22-year-old Ivy Leaguers, Evan and Julia are insulated with a security blanket afforded few others during a global downturn. Then again, many of their first-world problems are relatable: The paralyzing directionlessness of their post-college days is compounded by the fact that they’re saddled with each other.
Pitoniak ultimately manages to answer many of the bigger questions she poses, and her greatest triumph is a perceptive speculation on the thin, blurry line separating crooks from heroes on Wall Street. Smart, too, is her treatment of the financial crisis and the city as external yet inextricable characters that demand unpredictable growth and divergence from the human narrators. Despite their constant, inadvertent reinvention in the hands of Manhattan, Evan and Julia remain at root themselves. That may not be a particularly savory fate, but it’s a very New York one.