Friendship

Friendship by Emily Gould

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Emily Gould’s very fine first novel follows on her work in every last alternative form. Rarely is there a writer with a stake in the novel who, one million words in, has no extant fiction of which to speak. [1] The critical frames are all sized for irrepressible first novels, so what to make of one so, in a way, repressed?

Amy and Beverly are two young women living in New York City. They have a friendship. The title has a ring of purpose to it, platonic love being too often rendered palely. Friendship actually sounds a little like El Dorado or “Heteronormativity and Its Discontents in the Novel 2001–Present” or Unfilmable.

And yet the world of Friendship is highly explicable. Bev runs into an acquaintance on the train. She is ill-prepared for the big, punishing interview questions she’s asked at the temp agency. Status anxiety sets in immediately and, smoldering and bitter, proves unrelenting. Amy works for Yidster, a website trying to hit identity politics right on the nose. Resigned to a steady paycheck, she hints at online infamy in her past, details of which Gould, pointedly, declines to specify. [2] (The most Amy will later say is “Everyone was so mean to me. That has to have meant something,” though I’m not sure she meant to say it out loud.) The friends live in two different Brooklyn neighborhoods. They are in two different places, both professionally—Gould does well to read the “aura of menace” around a work phone—and romantically. Bev is suffering dates. Amy looks upon her boyfriend, Sam, in passages articulating that strange familiarity with a body that’s not yours. [3] “What does any of that mean?” Amy asks him. They are nearly thirty.

In novels set in NYC, everything that comes with the territory can overwhelm the novelist’s capacity to reinvent it. Amy and Bev and the author herself moved to the city around the same time as many of Gould’s readers, this one included. The Anxiety of Close Biography is very much in play. Friendship is tense with the expectation that it should speak to us but not for us. It may describe bulldozed bars, fine, but pray don’t speak of the clothes we aren’t quite pulling off. Our credit is dubious, the crowd faceless. We’ve come to live (and write) in the city without necessarily being able to afford it. Friendship is nothing if not conscientious about giving us the damage. There’s a good deal of soul-searching and due diligence on getting health insurance from the Freelancers Union. [4] Getting down to the brass tacks of money is a welcome endeavor—the peril being that one has always, at some point, had less than characters in a novel, even at their desperate nadirs; and the irony is their conversations about money will never be quite as realistic as the ones we avoid having. [5]

The novel turns when Amy and Bev house-sit for a married couple. Sally and Jason are older and more established, or wealthier. Their wedding received notice in the Times—not for meeting cute at Yale Law but for notable Bohemianism. They live beautifully upstate—that other region, along with the California north coast, just outlying an American cost-of-living disaster area, where weekenders go to question the wholesale direction of their lives. The friends have ever been the sitters and never the sat-for. Also, here begins the novel’s preponderance of vomit.

In a sense, Friendship starts at the hardest part, with its characters at the tail end of their ability to express themselves at will. They have lost their artlessness and given more and more of themselves over to markers, signifiers, updates. Bev’s teenage years—where most every story of friendship begins—are very well told but are important mostly for the sake of her sexual history. Sally moves back to the city and deigns to live in the Edge, the shining mouthwash-blue tower on the banks of the East River, built atop what was America’s worst beachfront. A brief foray into Sally’s point of view finds her sanguine on kinetic, creative Brooklyn—an opinion so rarely uninflected by exhausted skepticism that it reads here as almost pathologically obtuse. Given all that Sally’s money makes possible, she seems more of a projection belonging to those of us on the ground floor.

Emily Gould

Emily Gould

Friendship can provide that true perch from which to read falsity everywhere else. At lunch with Allie—yet another spiritually poisonous acquaintance—Bev wonders what became of their college friends: too many drugs, too much school, stylish alcoholism at best. Of her own failure to become a settled adult, Bev laments that “her life was the life she was going to have to describe to an increasingly uncomprehending Allie.” Part of the novel’s sway is that Who gives a fuck what Allie comprehends? doesn’t come to mind immediately, though I’m not sure Bev, or the novel, is better off for it. [6] But Friendship is wise on envy; a former coworker of Amy’s has a lead on an old job and shows off an engagement ring:

Amy felt a visceral, impulsive pang of desire, the kind that could make someone grab food off a stranger’s plate. She wanted the ring so badly. She thought, crazily, of stealing it. She wanted to take it off Jackie’s finger and put it in her mouth.

The novel’s strengths come at the price of its almost stifling insistence on portraying those moments when concerns as empty as status, as corrupt as money, seem indistinct from freedom of movement in life, and the meaning of it all. Moments when they seem at least as real as happiness or inner peace or the sense of effortless identity emanating from the Whole Foods adult with a slung baby and a full cart of Tuscan kale. At a store where Bev has taken a job Amy wouldn’t stoop to, Amy tries on a shirt, then weeps while Bev tells her she can only give her twenty percent off. It’s a great scene, but again, a close call [7]: Is it a garment-rending existential shit fit over a lateral move? Or is it a recognizable person discovering that to want from the world is to begin to fail? I’m more inclined to the latter. A more ideological fiction would simply have had her steal a loaf of bread.

Friendship runs into the problem of making an honest account of how received language—think “settling down” [8]—can become received experience. To realize “they had simply been coasting on inertia” is to quote a Gen-X motto and gloss over a real bruiser: That inertia consists of 99% vanity and time coasted past is not coming back.

But most of all, Friendship should resound with identification and discomfort for the cohort who would pull Amy’s and Bev’s hair out of the tub. [9] Amy takes a while to spend her bottom dollar—and it doesn’t go quietly. Those who suffer from the Anxiety of Close Biography will no doubt exclaim: Get up! Take your co-op shift, Amy! A thirty-year-old can sleep on a couch! That’s why they call it a couch. Buy a cheap bridesmaid dress and eat a sandwich, for chrissakes! The very thing that makes hers a “real” problem—an illustrative problem of scale—is that it’s indistinguishable from a kind of fog that anyone should wait to clear.

Most of us know honesty as a virtue, and fewer know it as a sneaky concept in the craft of fiction. The latter honesty is about eschewing cliché, mastering particular skills for making the reader feel confided in. The novel, or publishing itself, might be in jeopardy, but writing will live as long as there remains the distinct pleasure of being told an honest thing. It’s a little frightening, though; once transmuted into a literary principle, honesty becomes a talent of which almost none of us is truly capable. The Honest One, bitten by a radioactively honest spider, from another, honest planet, trained in honesty by mountaintop monks and telling it how it is to a dozen frauds at once. I submit that something like the following is unlikely and true: Emily Gould is one of the honest ones. Strange to say, as if it were contemporary lit’s equivalent to the only one on the force I can trust.

Gould has written a novel with forthright aims, a novel of strengths and clumsiness. Friendship is about the costs—financial and psychic—of living now, and so it is heavy with implication. Inevitably, when I’m writing to a friend and I make too earnest an appraisal of my life, I consider erasing everything. Both choices seem absurd—to be so embarrassed of one’s own feelings and, on the other hand, to impose a catalogue of one’s struggles on other possessors of the exact same feelings. Amy and Bev, like your friends, likely like you, are deeply self-conscious of being essentially weird or pathetically ordinary or totally unable to do that which comes easily to others. Writing to exorcise these fears can seem only as honest as it is shameless. Everything is a ransom note for everyone else’s time. And it sounds just a little too much like a love letter to yourself, don’t you think? They’re all poems on napkins. They’re all divorce songs. We should be generous rather than purely unadulterated, and write precisely as we can. We should also have a record of things written that we’ll certainly hope to, in some way, take back. That’s an argument for autorecovery, and it’s an argument for the novel.

***

1. Gould is a reader for sure and something along the lines of a publisher, distributor, and Amazon gadfly.

2. In the category of best literary controversies, I would nominate the comments field of “Exposed,” Gould’s 2008 article for the New York Times Magazine. The piece was about confessional writing online (“blogging” it was called, done with blogs—maybe this wasn’t so recent?). I’m sure I’d scrolled to the bottom of a page and read the comments before—I can’t imagine a time before they were far more important than Gawker articles themselves—but my recollection is that this was the first time I sat down to read every last one, which I did with my girlfriend, who worked in publishing, was an early fan of Gould’s posts on life in editorial, and was the only reason I knew anything about her at all. These commenters were New York Times readers, presumably. Growing up in California, I heard the thwack in the night of the Sunday edition. The desultory morning rag came to everyone regardless, but those thwacks, I felt, corresponded to the exact number of sophisticated citizens on the block. Many in the media—excuse that phrase—were shocked the Times had run the piece. The commenters, though, seemed to think there was a way to revoke Gould’s right to exist. They managed a complete sentence here and there, used big words, but in general they were savages. A mob that defended civilization’s standards of magazine journalism so vigilantly that nothing was left but ruins. They seemed to defy any honest estimation of the incidence of schizophrenia in the population. Is it half? Is it two-thirds? Am I typing out an excoriating, logically inconsistent comment right now without my dominant personality realizing it? Can I see dead people? While it’s unclear to this reader just what can be learned from the whole episode, it still stands out as a formative experience with the Internet, the early glimmers of an unnecessary rage.

3. In regard to the balance of the book: Monogamy fans, don’t take this the wrong way.

4. On my to-do list since 2006. First off: Is there such a thing as a freelancers’ union?

5. In her essay “Into the Woods,” Gould acknowledges the problem herself: “It’s hard to write about being broke because brokeness is so relative; ‘broke’ people run the gamut from the trust-funded jerk whose drinks you buy because she’s ‘so broke right now’ to the people who sleep outside the bar where she’s whining.” This is about the truth being hard to tell, but it’s also hard to listen to. It’s as if the story of meager survival in the city is a too-neat happy ending, even if the end is clearly just okay. Perhaps we’d rather hear that a writer with a rent-stabilized apartment died in a gutter. No one is alone?

6. For Bev’s visions of mature success, we’re offered: “Bev who lived happily in Madison, married to a lawyer,” and “Bev who had an MFA and published short stories.” Am I mistaken, or do those scenarios sound an almost incidental note of misanthropy? Though I can second that emotion. When things aren’t going so hot life-wise in our big, unequal city, it can seem as if the opposite of a failure is a fraud.

7. The epigraph to Emily Magazine, an arm of Gould’s web presence, is a maxim adapted from the writing of Chris Kraus: “Who gets to speak and why…is the only question.” I think that’s about different voices interrogating power. I’m pretty sure it’s a good thing, and that there’s a catch. A democracy chooses which identities it cares about most, and we’ve tended to rely upon philosophically turgid, tax-form identity politics: race, gender, privilege. The impetus for this book, in this voice, follows from the same impulse that would balk at a novel about straight white females on the cusp of downward social mobility. Perhaps we shouldn’t stick with just one question, even when it seems to be the only one.

8. Think “Brooklyn,” though I sincerely hope I live to see the day the scare quotes come off and we can live in a borough of New York City again.

9. Which is to say Hannah Horvath and I read Friendship with a ton of context. Writing the present moment will draw a certain sneer. It will inevitably be seen to bear not only the burden of reporting but responsibility for the defective world on display. Gould is so well known to NYC publishing that, like some Democrat running on single-payer Predator drones, she’s “polarizing.” An innocuous piece of Internet copy on the site BookPage, “14 Women to Watch in 2014” had it that “fans and foes alike” were waiting for this novel. None of the thirteen other writers were presumed to have “foes.” Of course, I couldn’t vouch for every post in the whole Collected Gould—not the entirety of her memoir; her cooking show; a fairly straight-ahead miscellaneous blog that began as a take-a-picture-before-you-eat Tumblr; publicity for her own publishing venture, Emily Books; and her Twitter presence—but I continue to feel that animosity toward her is mostly explained by her total commitment to forms about which the rest of us are afforded a comfortable ambivalence.


M.C. Mah is a critic and novelist with work in The Nervous Breakdown, KGB Lit Mag, and Full Stop. He lives in Brooklyn. More from this author →