Emily Gould’s Friendship

Emily Gould is a talented young writer. Here are my thoughts on her first novel, Friendship.

“What are your grandest aspirations?” That’s a question on a job application that stymies one of the main characters, Bev, near the very beginning of Gould’s book. If it challenges Bev, it animates Friendship. The question hangs around in the back of the narrative constantly, sometimes as text, sometimes as subtext, but always present. That may make the book sound terribly self-important, but it isn’t. By turns, the question is posed seriously and comically, but always with sympathy for the characters. Gould lets Bev and her best friend Amy ask themselves this question, even while she gently mocks some of their pretensions. And without getting too meta, it’s fair to say that the question also reflects on the novel, on Gould, and on writing: what are the ambitions at play here, and how grand can and should they be? What kind of book is Gould writing, and what does that mean about How Writers Write Now?

As a woman and a New Yorker, these questions are especially acute for Gould. Women who write novels face a kind of dual consciousness: they are expected to either fight against the “chick lit” stereotype by embracing arch seriousness or stereotypically masculine prose, or to embrace it under a theory of reappropriation. But they are not permitted to opt out of the question, even if it bores them as much as the question seems to bore Gould. And of course, being a writer in New York writing about characters in New York means that many people will look to Gould’s book as a symbol of New York writing and New York ambition. It’s a lot to take on, but I think she’s up to it.

Friendship is Bev and Amy’s story, although plenty of ancillary characters slide in and out of the narrative. Bev and Amy are both bright young women living lives in New York City that they can’t really afford, trying to prove to themselves and to employers that they are meant for more than they are doing when we find them. I write that sentence and I wince, because although it’s an accurate reflection of the book’s narrative and themes, it’s the kind of synopsis that we’re expected to find ridiculous and preemptively annoying. Gould’s book has to labor in a cultural scene — and this is not just a literary scene thing, not even close — where we’re meant to assume that stories of young, educated women striving in big cities are inherently tired and ridiculous. Gould’s solution, I think, is just to be smart and to be funny and a little self-deprecating, and it seems that she would like her characters to respond to their own New York City that way as well: just be a little smarter, a little funnier, and a little less self-serious.

Gould follows Amy and Bev as they navigate young adulthood, or really, young adulthood of a very particular, very prominent kind. The story of privileged-but-broke young New York is now a well-worn topic, and there’s little in Gould’s narrative that jumps out as a departure from the typical: Amy and Bev navigate the indignities of low-paying work, getting too drunk, a disastrously ill-considered “I quit!” moment, an unplanned pregnancy with a jerky guy, clueless bosses, the steady accumulation of petty unhappiness in a grey, grinding city. The characters are similar, but Gould differentiates them in workmanlike fashion. Amy starts the book working for a trendy (if revenue-free) website; Bev, merely a temp. Amy also enjoys the stability and occasional financial support of a long-term boyfriend. Gould takes pains to demonstrate how Amy’s greater material security, though frequently imperiled, actually contributes to the difference in the emotional lives of the two characters — even though Amy is typically possessed of the kind of sweet cluelessness about it that is such a part of young elite life.

If some of these tropes are familiar by now, they are fortunately of less direct importance to the novel than the reactions that they inspire in Bev and Amy. The point is to see all of this through the lens of this relationship, a friendship that starts a little too quickly and a little too intensely, one that is revealed to be a little artificial in its familiarity and mutual comfort, and one that is mediated constantly through the internet. One of the somewhat-depressing insights of the book is that this best friendship is inextricable from online life, and not just in the obvious sense in that Bev and Amy are in constant digital communication. They also connect in the same way people do on the internet, as somewhat exaggerated characters, performing for each other in the way that the digital generation does, enabling the kind of quasi- or micro-celebrity that is the half-embarrassed culture of the online world. The fact that they also spend tons of time with each other face-to-face does little to diminish this spirit of performance, and part of Gould’s take on contemporary friendship is that the digital self does more to define IRL interactions than the other way around. Gould is careful not to judge this dynamic. I’m a lot less polite, in that regard. I find Bev and Amy’s friendship sweet but sad, hung with artifice that dulls the intimacy they both desperately need.

Though the book is titled Friendship, the most compelling, best-realized relationships within it are romantic and sexual. Gould is at her best when she’s writing about romantic and sexual partners misunderstanding each other. In particular, she is remarkably deft in describing the patterns and cadences of worn-in relationships, the kind that are happy and comfortable and not heading in any particular direction. The relationship between Amy and Sam, her artist boyfriend, is a highlight. Gould shows how an honest relationship between good people who respect each other can, just below the surface, be deeply broken. It’s a sympathetic and mature portrayal. I don’t know, maybe I’m just glad to read a contemporary novel where a dysfunctional relationship is portrayed as sweet and loving, rather than full-on Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Though the book is occasionally a bit forced in delivering character information, Gould knows how to reveal relationships with subtlety, and the way in which she quietly signals at the fundamentally unhealthy relationship between two characters we like shows great craft. The description of Bev’s secret relationship with the teenager she lost her virginity to — there’s a lot of time-shifting in the book, which is handled without pretense or fuss — is also great, and shows what Gould is capable of. It’s warm, true-to-life, funny, and only a little mean.

Gould understands the city, which is something that you wish could be said for more novelists who live in New York and write novels about New York. Or, at least, she writes like someone who understands the city. Just like the worn-in comforts and unspoken dysfunction of the relationships she describes, the relationship of her main characters to the city is true to life, mundane, and unaffected. With so many novels, movies, and shows set in New York, you never get far from the sense that the characters are emoting a New York experience that is thought more than it’s lived. Gould’s characters seem to me to be the kind of people who actually live someplace. Bev’s unplanned, awkward pregnancy is contrasted with the “rosy perfect baby dispensary in central Brooklyn,” and the differences and parallels between Bev and Amy’s lives and the lives of the Park Slope types that crop up in countless Brooklyn novels feel earned and real. Whatever else is true of the book, it feels like a New York novel that was not written by someone who  felt anxiety about how to write New York into every page. And that includes the many little ways in which the main characters demonstrate that they probably shouldn’t be there. I don’t want to spoil any of the important plot points — I’ll share that the ever-rising tide of New York rents is a constant, roiling anxiety for the characters as it is for real-world New Yorkers– but it’s enough to say that, just as the book subtly hints at the problems in human relationships, it gives us reason to think that some of the characters badly need to break up with New York. Just as with real people, the self-definition of these characters seems at times to preclude the possibility of really thinking of moving away. But again and again I found myself thinking that what these women really needed was to get the hell out of New York.

There are a lot of little tics, none of them major, none of which overwhelm the many little pleasures of Gould’s craft, but which do gradually aggregate together and chip away at the polish and focus of the book. For example, Gould’s novel has that name problem, the implausibly plausible names of characters and places that sound like a writer trying not to sound like a writer coming up with names of characters and places. There’s Bev’s friend J.R. Pinkman, the literary agency Warwick Smythe, career woman Sally Katzen, self-important entrepreneurs Jonathan and Shoshanna Geltfarb…. These are the types of names that are realer than real. (This is an understandable and common problem in a novel. I’d hate to have to name characters myself.) I wonder how many young, ambitious New York women would consent to being called Bev.

When she hits on something just right, Gould has a habit of underlining the achievement. The name of the Jewish-themed blog Amy writes for, Yidster, is quite funny, but Gould calls attention to its funniness one too many times. The name Plum, for a magazine about older women trying to get pregnant, is perfect, but Gould can’t help but call attention to its perfection. Many aspects of the book give the impression that Gould does not quite trust her own material, though she should. When she wants to signal “online media life!,” she squeezes references to CMS, Gchat, Twitter, and Wikipedia into a single paragraph. The best piece of writing advice I’ve ever heard springs to mind: don’t spend it all in one place.

Though characterization is a strength for Gould, dialogue is not. A lot of her dialogue is pregnant with the anxiety of writing dialogue; the seams show. The characters speak in a kind of forced casual jokiness that seems all the more unnatural for trying so hard to seem natural. It’s uncanny valley territory. Gould faces a typical problem, which is that she needs to accurately portray manners of speaking and being which are quite obnoxious when put on the page. I would like to pay Gould $20 to never write dialogue with the construction, “Ha, [sentence]” again. And while there are certainly people who speak in non-question sentences in the cadence of a sentence, and you can portray that habit like this? Lots of times? that doesn’t really mean that you should. I suspect that for a lot of people, the central question of the novel will be whether they are annoyed by Amy and Bev. Gould’s negotiation of the many minor irritating things about her characters is the greatest effort of the book, and she sometimes navigates it well, sometimes clumsily.

Still: that central question, from the beginning. What are Amy and Bev’s greatest aspirations? (During a date, a half-listening suit asks Bev, “So what’s the ultimate goal?”) It’s a question that Gould allows to grow from plot to theme and, ultimately, to a kind of social critique, or maybe just a social observation. That question, as all of the questions in the book are, is filtered through the lens of a life lived constantly online. From my perspective, that kind of question — direct, unashamed, and concerned with the larger notions of who we are and what we are living our lives for — has been rendered somewhat unspeakable in the online age.

The type of people that Gould writes both for and about (Amy’s boss says that she is symbolic of her generation of “young, upwardly mobile urban Jews”) have created a culture where nothing is less permissible than pretense. That desperate fear of appearing pretentious has compelled a generation of young writers to scrub their work and their self-presentation of appeals to the transcendent, the self-consciously deep. The sad, inevitable consequence is that they start to view their own lives as petty and inconsequential. Amy and Bev struggle with these questions, as Gould does, in Friendship. At one point, they consider people who “seem to know what their spot in the world is and how to navigate it comfortably.” As they note, such people “skew dude.” They do, indeed. What the book asks implicitly is whether people from outside of the self-important demographic should pursue a similar sense of purpose, or whether the whole construct should be given up. The latter is easier, and more in keeping with their culture, but Friendship keeps reminding us of the necessity of that sort of self-belief, particularly in times of crisis, like pregnancy or unemployment. At one point, Amy considers trees, thinking “How powerless the trees were!” It’s the kind of writerly affect we all know now to deride, and yet Gould is kind enough to let her character take these feelings seriously. I think that’s what I like about Gould as a writer best, her capacity for sympathy in displaying attitudes and behaviors the savvy set finds ridiculous.

These are important, interesting questions that Gould is asking. I just wish she found them more interesting herself.

My central complaint, ultimately, is that Gould often seems impatient with her own book. At its worst, Friendship reads like someone trying to hurriedly put her notes into a novel. There’s a stand up comedy quality to the book; frequently, Gould seems to want to go from one set piece to another and seems bored by having to do the work of stitching them together. There is far too much delivery of material that seems forced and ostentatious. There are a bunch of metaphors and moments that are a little too clever for their own good. Gould describes Amy’s bank account, somehow still controlled by her mother, as a “bedraggled, half-rotten umbilical cord that had somehow snaked its way up I-95 all the way from the D.C.  suburbs to New York.” This is an overly-polished nugget, and one that should have been left in a notebook. Although we appear to be in the midst of a anti-MFA program backlash, this is precisely the sort of book that could have benefited from workshopping. This sort of showy prose is rendered extra frustrating because Gould has the chops to do without. “The curtains were made of a clean, worn-thin type of white cloth that looked like an apron someone might be wearing in a black-and-white photograph.” That’s an actual metaphor, a structural one, one which informs the reader without calling attention to its own cleverness. I read this book and want to say, trust your material.

I’m just not sure if Gould wants to be writing it at all. This is a powerfully presumptuous thing to say, but I cannot shake the feeling that Friendship is not the book that Gould really wants to write. The impatience of her prose, to me, betrays an ambivalence about the project. That’s a shame, because this is not a bad book, not at all. It’s a fussy, rumpled book, and one that could have used another round of revisions, but it’s also a bright, kind, funny book, a book that shows the naturally endearing writer who wrote it without self-obsession or autobiography. But Gould seems uncomfortable with the basic question that she is asking of her readers and of her characters, as if she is afraid of what she might find if she asked herself that question, “what is your greatest ambition?” I rudely suspect that the answer, for Gould, is not “to be a novelist.”

After I finished college I had nothing particular to do and no particular idea of where to do it, so I moved to Chicago where several of my friends had gone before me. It was a fun, young time, full of drift and booze and sex, and it was over very quickly. One of my best friends had gone out there, I suppose, to make it in the comedy world. I would go to parties with his friends, people who performed at places like Improve Olympic, who did funny sketch comedy shows and terrible improve. I would come home from these parties and find that I was totally exhausted. The young comedy types never stopped delivering their material; it was wave after wave of bits, hours of the beats of comedy, the tension of everyone waiting for the punchline. None of which is to say that this wasn’t entertaining. On the contrary, they were all lovely people, and some of them were very funny. But I would just get so tired.

My experience of the internet, as it has congealed into a set of fossilizing cultural and social practices, is something like those parties. I am exhausted by getting people’s material. There are dozens of websites and networks on which the digital elite interact, but you could combine them all and name it Clevr, where people go to be funny and to be seen being funny and to be rewarded with acknowledgments that they are funny. I feel the tension of people throwing their  best stuff out there, and absorb their ambient anxiety as they tensely wait for the digital strokes to roll in. I cannot help but say that very few people seem to be made genuinely happy by this ceaseless, unrelenting writers room. Instead, they paw around at the vague feeling of embarrassment that hangs around the whole enterprise like the marine layer, consciously rejecting that shame but unable to will it away by writing a longread. And I wonder if we all wouldn’t be better served if, rather than trying to will away this ambient embarrassment, people asked themselves if they feel it for a good reason, if maybe there isn’t something else they’re all supposed to be doing.

Amy and Bev are creatures of the internet, and they live with the desire to be seen while secretly fearing that there is little to be gained if they are. They are self-consciously creative but seem to create very little. Amy’s boyfriend paints incredibly detailed pictures of mundane objects, and in their own way, Bev and Amy stumblingly pursue the task of painting themselves in similar fashion. The open question is whether this is something worth doing, or maybe more importantly, if this is something people can find lasting happiness in doing. It’s a question that the book poses to the characters, to its readers, and to Gould herself. What do you want to do with your life?

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