“An artist literally could not be apolitical. Every portrait was a portrait of its time.”
Like the people in them, with time friendships change, or so one group of thirty-something New Yorkers discovers. Tess and Tazio met in college as art students navigating the city’s post-9/11 haze. Years later they face the reality of a Trump presidency alongside long-buried personal demons. Tess’s husband (and Tazio’s best friend) David suffers from a neurological condition caused by an accident in the wake of her infidelity. Meanwhile, Tazio cannot bring himself to commit to his fiancé, Angelica. Just as the national bubble of liberal naivety is about to burst, so, too, are this group’s secrets.
The Body Politic. By Brian Platzer. Atria. 2020. Hardcover.
How did I get the book?
The book was in the donation book pile at my internship last February, right before its released. I liked the cover as well as the blurbs from Jenny Offill and Kristen Roupenian. I return to it now, post-election, in part because of its themes, and also because I’ve been trying to add more men writers to my repertoire (you know, for equality’s sake).
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What did I think?
The novel’s plot is often secondary to its character studies. This is most deeply felt with Tess, who at thirty-seven has been emotionally fulfilled through understudy roles on Broadway, marveling at being “young enough to get drunk and dance alone in a club, old enough to have kids she'd die for.” But this freedom disappears when she becomes responsible for her two young children as well as for David in the aftermath of his accident. Tess desperately wants doctors to cure her husband, “for his pain to go away, and for her to be able to live again,” decidedly feeling her own victimhood despite knowing it was her affair that indirectly led to the problem. “I thought ‘taking care of’ meant soothing him if he got fired or nursing him when he was sick with, I don't know, bronchitis or something,” Tess admits. In feeling exasperated by her love for David (and acknowledging that she settled because of the stability she thought he’d offer), Tess desperately seeks to escape, “to have something she wanted” just for herself. “The pain in her present illuminates those in her past,” leading Tess to eventually confront both her familial and romantic ghosts.
David is aware of his wife’s desires and actually wants the same things for Tess, but he struggles with it, admitting, “I get angry with her for her inability to hide what she wants.” His own desires waver. Initially, “He doesn't want pity or conversation—just a constant implicit acknowledgment about how terrible his life is. It seems important to him that his pain is always on [Tess’s] mind...He wants a witness to his suffering,” confessing in his personal therapy journal, “I wanted her, but I didn't want to want her.” This feeling becomes more vulnerable, though, as David admits, “I need her to take care of me, and I'm scared to ask...are you still here, promise me you still want to be here?” As David cracks, Platzer shows how aware he is of his shortcomings, most especially in relation to his best friend. “David appeared…like a version of Tazio at which God had taken a couple of lazy swipes of an eraser and then abandoned, leaving a smudged, bloated copy.” In no longer having his one advantage over Tazio—the ability to provide comfort—David really does feel the same loss as Tess.
Angelica watches the couple from the outside, able to pinpoint their shortcomings in ways they cannot. “The problem with Tess is that she won't take happiness for an answer. The opposite of David, whose first inclination was to find joy,” she notes, though she wonders privately how their love for each other cannot overpower this. Angelica’s desire for what she believes Tess and David have (and what she admits is too difficult for her to achieve with Tazio) comes through as she steps in to help with their children amidst their unravelings. It also paints her as the strongest character, the only one who is able to successfully confront her emotional baggage, to unpack it in any sort of satisfying way.
🌟 3.5/5 — Good Plus
Platzer’s decision to depict Tazio largely through the eyes of the others brilliantly relays his allure to the reader. Tess is attracted to Tazio’s dangerous choices simply for the sake of danger. David calls him a best friend but still hates him in the way he thought he’d eventually grow out of. And Angelica, the most self-aware, cares for Tazio, but also knows he’s becoming something from which she must move on. “All three of them are in love with Tazio...all in their own way,” we see. “All in much the same way...They are all in love with this man who hasn't been worthy of anyone's love for years.” Their collective understanding of Tazio is far more powerful than any reasoning he ever gets of himself.
Where the novel suffers, however, is in its dramatic, quickly-paced conclusion. While it does the work of tying the political symbolism littered throughout more closely to the emotions of the characters, this also feels largely unnecessary. Publishing into 2020, where the majority of Americans are well aware of “how angry and broken someone must be to think Donald Trump is right for this or any moment,” how “itchy stability was usually better than the oscillation between hunger and gorged overabundance” (hello, moderate President-Elect Biden), turning this into the apex of the drama felt like aggressively trying to hard for something ultimately underwhelming, like letting off too many firework kits in your backyard. Platzer would have done better to dwell in the emotional fizzle for everyone, most especially Tess, to further unpick the idea he leaves dangling of “wanting to live a specific life in the moment you want to live it,” to be “a woman whose life is good, whose life is fine, at least, and one day will be better.”
Beyond the book.
Platzer, like David, also suffers from neurological issues. In doing promotion for the novel, he spoke about how the process of writing it helped him better understand his illness, as well as the family and friends who support him. In an event with The Strand, Platzer also elaborated on the complexities of the friendships portrayed in the book and how he decided to intertwine them with political circumstances.
During the pandemic, Platzer has also been writing a number of nonfiction pieces about his thoughts on the learning pods model as opposed to in-person schooling and how the hell to teach your child math that you don’t understand yourself. Through these witty observations, you can definitely see where he got the inspiration for all of his child characters. Also, a bonus favorite read from his journalism profile: necessary thoughts on Paw Patrol. Enjoy.
See you again soon!