It astonished me to learn that Emily Gould has a thing for tattoos. On page 169 of her 208-page memoir, And the Heart Says Whatever, she tells us that she "started getting tattooed," a verb tense that implies she'll continue to add to what sounds like an exotic if thematically disjointed exhibit: koi, a chrysanthemum, poppies, two starfish. And on her hip, a broken heart—it was her first: "When it was my turn I barely winced, and soon I had a permanent broken heart. It was emboldening in general to know that I could act nonchalant about pain."
Gould's casual masochism didn't surprise me. By that point she'd already told us about cheating on multiple boyfriends and buying (then returning) a purebred dog she had no intention of caring for. Indeed, the entire book consists of Gould knowingly putting herself in situations where she is bound to be emotionally hurt. That this weird bravado would translate physically is one of the book's few graceful literary touches. But for more than a hundred pages I'd been reading about pretty much every major (and not so major) decision she'd made in her life—losing her virginity, what college to go to, what to wear. How had tattoos not come up?
I feel a little bad about reading so much into a lacuna, but I realize now that Gould, in general, does not seem to think much about her future, let alone about how those choices will appear when she looks back. Her leaving college in Ohio and moving to New York, her quitting a fairly steady, predictable career path as an associate editor at a major publishing house to take a job with the Gawker blogging empire (I once worked at a Gawker sister site but had left by the time Gould joined), her impulsive jumps into cohabitation with an assortment of boyfriends—these choices seem much less brave to me than they might have when I was her age. That's because, for all of Gould's anxious introspection, she shows no sign of understanding the consequences. Such blitheness suggests she is more nihilistic than she has portrayed herself to be, which would make her autobiography less revealing than it seems at first glance. Or else she's not as self-aware as I imagined, which explains the entire book.
But back to the tattoos. Gould doesn't seem to notice, or even seem curious about, the contradiction expressed in her choice of image and her boldness in the face of the procedure. A "permanent broken heart" is pretty much the opposite of one that says "Whatever." Gould is a member of a generation that has grown up confusing irony with tragedy, nonchalance with acceptance, a pose with poise, self-dramatization with self-awareness. That confusion is especially maddening because I sense that Gould is interested in figuring out those distinctions, but she shows little concern beyond realizing that a distinction exists. A couple of years after her New York arrival, she started a blog called the Universal Review, in which she and a friend took turns assessing everyday events. In a "review" of the "bums who hung out on the corner of our new block," she wrote, "When I passed them on my way to the subway in the morning, I was sometimes struck by a pang of envy."
What Gould's life experiences lack in drama—there is no unifying scandal or tragedy, she is not a "survivor" of anything save the New York publishing world—she makes up for in critical faculties. To be fair, she warns us that the journey she is taking us on, despite covering about ten years of her life, from high school to what seems like yesterday, is short enough to leave author and reader alike not seeing the scenery change very much. "I can look back and recognize the things I've done and said that were wrong: unethical, gratuitously hurtful, golden-rule-breaking, et cetera. Sometimes the wrongness was even clear at the time," she writes in the introduction. "But I did these things because I felt the pull of a trajectory, a sense of experience piling up the way it does when you turn the pages of a novel. I would be lying if I said I was a different person now. I am the same person"—with the addition of a few tattoos, natch—"I would do it all again."
I'm not so sure. Actually, I'm not even sure she's the person she's just finished describing. A memoir by a completely un-repentant unethical person could make for a titillating read, if not a very literary one (Nick Denton, our mutual former boss, leaps to mind here, not sure why). But Gould is not even that. Her sins, all merely rude or selfish, are rather common. The picture that emerges is of someone I am pretty sure I'd like—a suspicion further grounded by our having many mutual friends but really based in both the superficial details (heck, I like Miu Miu and Marc Jacobs) and a shared sensibility. There is, after all, a reason why we both got jobs at Gawker:
Being mean and quick came easily to me, and if I thought about it, I could imagine that everything I'd done up until that point had been my training for this job. The hyper-awareness of celebrity culture I'd developed at the publishing house served me well, certainly, but I was also reminded . . . of my high-school era proclivity for frantic, constant note-passing. I had even maintained a notebook solely for the purpose of writing nasty little observations about my teachers and classmates, which my friends and I would circulate. . . . At one point it had been confiscated and a teacher we'd been particularly cruel to had punished us; I had protested the punishment, citing the first amendment rights we'd been studying that semester in Government class.
I have never read a clearer description of what it's like to work for a Gawker blog, right down to the huffy self-righteousness and the absence of any sense of responsibility. That, for instance, words matter, and not in spite of the effect they have on people but because of it.
Gould knows that words matter and that they hurt. A vague sense of responsibility—and the fact that she was losing friends—is why she left Gawker, which she wrote about in an epic cover story for the New York Times Magazine in 2008. None of the material covered there is repeated in this book, and I suspect even people who buy it but have never heard of Gawker before will recognize something is missing, if only because the quotation above hints at what a soul-sucking, pleasureless attitude factory (maybe even a sweatshop) Denton runs. Gould, whatever faults she may have, is not cruel, and few people can survive such relentlessness.
There was much debate when the Times Magazine article appeared about whether or not Gould "deserved" the kind of lux treatment for a first-person essay that's usually reserved for people who've, well, done more with their lives. For my—admittedly self-interested—part, I thought the piece, while well written (the book is, too), missed a chance to examine not just Gould's decision to go off the media cattle farm but also the existence of so many tender young things happy to take her place in the pen. Gould is special, she is talented, but there is something hugely interesting, as well as disturbing, about the generation she represents and its ability to narrate its experiences without understanding them.
Candor is not the problem, but to reveal something—cheating on your boyfriend, your feelings about bums—is not the same thing as a revelation. Gould has, in fact, piled up experiences as though in the pages of a novel; she's just left the main character incomplete. Maybe she doesn't allow herself to stand before the reader as either of fully formed or of fully compromised character because she prizes the ability to insulate herself from that sort of risk or exposure. Maybe she is not so nonchalant about pain after all.
As it is, her glancing impressions are the comments of a docent in the hipster section of some lifestyle museum. And while she may have felt the compulsion of narrative, her book is more like an assembly of anecdotes, the diary of a smart young woman collecting experiences in New York as though they were shoes, or trucker hats, or back issues of Vice magazine . . . nothing that would leave a lasting impression, like, say, a tattoo.
Ana Marie Cox is GQ.com's Washington correspondent.