IT WAS NOT QUITE eight o’clock on the morning of April 17, 2014, when essayist and blogger Emily Gould took to Twitter to imagine what it would look like “if blurbs were honest.” What she wrote there was, by necessity, swift and, by design, mean-spirited. “[Author] is clearly very talented and well-educated, but this novel has no reason to exist beyond those facts,” she began, and proceeded to dash off two or three more contemptuous one-liners: “This is a very strong MFA final thesis project and the authors’ [sic] friends and parents should be very proud.” “It might be possible for this person to write a good book someday.”
As a rule, people who write bad books should not offer such enticing provocations. And Gould’s debut novel, Friendship, is really quite bad. If its blurbs were honest — which they are not — they might note that Gould’s novel sustains itself on plot contrivances and old gossip smuggled in from the author’s very public life as a former editor at Gawker. The language is so spiritless it’s basically dead on arrival — long, babbling paragraphs detail the use of Twitter, Wikipedia, and Gchat; simulacra of text messages are tasked with conveying the novel’s denouement. Gould’s preferred technique for approximating realistic dialogue involves tacking the colloquialisms “like” and “dude” onto simple sentences. (As in, “I missed you, dude!” or “You’re going to, like, have a baby.”) All of this might be forgivable if Gould’s story about the unraveling intimacy between two young women in New York wasn’t tedious in the extreme, but Friendship is a great snooze of a novel, leaden and dulling to the senses.
Here’s the plot. Best friends Beverly “Bev” Tunney and Amy Schein are young, dissatisfied, and living beyond their means in New York City. Bev is an MFA dropout turned white-collar temp. Amy is the disgraced former employee of “a locally prominent gossip blog” known for “mocking New York City’s rich, powerful, corrupt, ridiculous elite.” Bev is giving, Amy is selfish — these characters can only aspire to one-dimensionality. When Bev discovers that she is pregnant after a one-night stand, Amy encourages her to “sell” the baby to a middle-aged, dissatisfied, wealthy couple in the Hudson River Valley, Sally and Jason. Predictably, Amy’s Dickensian maneuver spells disaster for her and Bev’s friendship. After some tears and fights, the novel ends with the girls reconciling over text message with the exchange of a telltale <3.
Part of the problem is that Friendship runs headlong into a topic that has received careful and sustained attention over the past five years: the elusive nature of friendship between, or among, white, well-educated, urban women floundering about in their second or third decade of life. I don’t mean to imply that these experiences, privileged though they may be, are not worthy of representation. We need only glance at the work of writers like Sheila Heti, Emily Rapp, or Lena Dunham to see how the many joys and strains of intimacy — pride, shame, envy, sympathy, self-identification, passivity, outright aggression — can come together to create an off-kilter, even apprehensive, vision of what female friendship looks like in our time. What makes these artistic projects so compelling is how artfully they use the trope of female friendship to refract the bigger questions that preoccupy, and often divide, women as a class. What problems are unique to female artistic labor? How can sex simultaneously liberate and confine our bodies? What’s the deal with feminism? Narrative drama is not preceded by dramatics, but gender politics.
To insist, as Slate’s Amanda Hess does, that such narratives of female friendship are not “realistic” is to have a very limited understanding of realism. (Hess also claims that female friendships are universally “consistent, positive, and compassionate,” but good luck finding a female friend who agrees with that statement.) Of course some conflicts between female friends may strike us as astonishingly petty or self-indulgent. But in good TV shows or novels, they’re never so diminished. When female friendship struggles to redeem itself for its own shortcomings, these shortcomings have everything to do with how a person — how a woman — should be in a world that sends women sputtering, noisy messages about the identities available to them.
Once or twice, Friendship tries to broach these knotty issues. But Gould quickly retreats into banal and, frankly, puzzling details that neither move the story forward nor round out its interchangeable characters. A perfectly competent description of Sally’s visit to an IVF facility is interrupted by a dig at the New York radio station Lite FM, which plays “an overproduced song about heartbreak and loss” in which a singer “endow[s] each word with ten extra syllables to show off her vocal range.” Early on, Gould attempts to foreshadow the points of friction between Amy and her boyfriend, Sam — a noncommittal Marxist painter — but jettisons her psychological setup to dwell on Amy’s cat, Waffles, who is “needy as a dog” and “constantly doing cute shit.” An entire chapter that details Amy’s impulsive and anticlimactic decision to volunteer at a soup kitchen, gingerly serving roasted chicken to poor, dirty women, has no discernible purpose other than to reinforce Amy’s self-superiority. All of these missed opportunities pile up. One is left with the strange impression that Friendship is both too specific in places where it doesn’t matter and too underspecified in places where it counts the most.
Curiously, Gould is at her best when she untethers herself from Amy — her avatar — and allows her imagination to roam. There is a lovely set piece in the middle of Friendship: a flashback to Bev as a teenager, a farm girl in middle America, where her playful, curious mind chafes against her family’s hard Christian piety. The melancholy that winds through Bev’s quiet acts of rebellion recalls that gospel of female friendship, Judy Blume’s Summer Sisters (1998), which I remember reading breathlessly, surreptitiously, as a teenager. In the hands of a more comfortable writer of fiction, Friendship could have been Summer Sisters updated for the millennial generation — a thrilling, yet sensitive, look at inequalities of gender and income, casual sex, social media, and the changing faces of New York City.
I don’t really know anything about Gould’s personal life or the media entanglements that made her into a minor celebrity some years back. (I did read her recent essay in MFA vs. NYC, and was taken aback by how unreflective she was in her confessional writing as well.) However, I suspect that this novel was sold on its autobiographical appeal as a “novel from life,” one that capitalizes on the interest surrounding female friendship without showing us anything new or interesting about its social or psychological workings. Somewhere along the way, Gould decided to renounce character and conflict and insight — what some might call novel-writing — to gawk at the thinly veiled details of her own life. But the problem with this gamble is obvious: I don’t care about Gould’s life. And after reading Friendship, I don’t see any reason why you should either.