Monday, May 2, 2016

Manhattan Fraudster Squad

Camille Perri, The Assistants

It starts stupidly enough: Tina Fontana, executive assistant to Manhattan's biggest media mogul, accidentally double-bills her boss's airline tickets to the company expense accounts. The resulting check is a rounding error for the unsubtly named Titan Corporation, but large enough to write off Tina's student debt. She considers the resulting fraud a one-time incident... until an accounting aide catches it. To buy silence, Tina launches a relatively ambitious embezzlement ring.

Somewhere around page 120, I began sketching notes for a diss review of Camille Perri's debut novel. It's not bad, really, just self-consciously topical and vague in language, and I prepared to teasingly upbraid Perri's reliance on stock characters and safe, market-tested situations. But I kept reading, and somewhere after the one-third mark, her tone changes. The story remains anodyne and remarkably low-friction, but becomes distinctly more readable and engaging.

Seems Emily, the gorgeous but insecure (and possibly alcoholic—her vaunted beauty won't withstand that wine intake) accounting gnome, also has insurmountable college debt. Tina starts double-billing nickel-and-dime expenses, which Emily quietly buries. The perfect crime, until a mid-level auditor skims the books. The ladies soon find themselves underwriting everyone else's lingering debt, straddling the line between The Devil Wears Prada and The Bling Ring.

Meanwhile, Kevin, a handsome rising star in Titan's legal department, begins courting Tina. Their unlikely romance flourishes, though her self-recriminations about the embezzlement, which dance perilously close to whining, keep her from truly committing. She misleads him about her extracurricular activities. That's how, in a "loose lips sink ships" moment, he accidentally makes an online journalist think she's about to save America from student debt. Then the floodgates really open.

Camille Perri
Tina, Perri's first-person narrator, makes snap decisions about other characters, which we're supposed to consider binding. She judges other women by wardrobe, hair, and cup size. She wonders why Kevin chooses her, since she repeatedly reminds everyone how flat-chested and androgynous she is. This latter never gets resolved, because he's the only male given any depth in this female-centric ensemble, besides her boss Robert, who speaks in folksy gnomic Texas-isms.

Plus, Tina's guilty conscience gets pretty annoying. Long after she should've developed thick skin from all the fraud she's committed, she remains as skittish as a middle-schooler caught pinching from Mommy's pocketbook. Don Corleone she ain't. This timidity results in philosophical asides about as deep as Pretty Little Liars soliloquies. Does Perri think childlike self-doubt makes her protagonist more human? Because I kept hoping Tina would act like a grown-up.

But after the slow, chugging introduction, a change occurs. As increasing numbers of glamorous, well-put-together female assistants begin approaching Tina for relief from their student debt, she realizes her "imposter syndrome" is entirely in her head. Everyone around her who doesn't have assistants, is probably yoked into debts that keep them scared, desperate, and compliant. Manhattan splendor absolutely requires peons too burdened to rebel against their subjugation.

That's where Perri develops an actual thesis. Early on, Tina describes her penny-ante Robin Hood scheme as "an Oxygen network original series waiting to happen," and I yawningly agreed. But once Tina discovers virtually everyone shares her feelings of fiscal despair, her dominant trait shifts from despair to action. Realizing her problems are normal, that everyone around her also suffers in silence, motivates her to get off the pot.

Not that she stops acting relentlessly nice. Even once the story develops actual cojones (a word this story loves and overuses), Tina remains committed to us liking her. She mostly flinches from confrontation, unless she already controls the table, so little is actually risked. The story mostly centers on discussions around kitchen tables and trendy Midtown taverns. These conversations remain polite and idea-driven; disagreements primarily involve allocating the loot.

Joseph Stiglitz notes many young college graduates have high aspirations, but accept lucrative, meaningless jobs to subsidize their debts. I have an MA and work construction; I sympathize. But dreams postponed become dreams abandoned. This novel does best when addressing these issues. A little Cagney and Lacey proceduralism could've driven Tina past kitchen-sink drama, into the themes that clearly excite Perri.

Perri's press biography states she wrote this book's first draft while working as an executive assistant. Therefore we can attribute this story to Perri's wish fulfillment, and Tina's self-flagellation to Perri's own imposter syndrome. That lends this novel a certain authenticity, and probably bolsters the understated humor. If only Perri set Tina free to risk without being the authorial proxy, this novel might've transitioned from merely good to great.

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