Emily Gould bolted to local media fame seven years ago as a Gawker blogger. She wrote scathing posts about writers, celebrities, and anyone else who happened to come in for online scrutiny on a given day. She was funny. She was reckless. She was really good at being really mean. She was twentysomething and photogenic, and when she appeared on CNN, Jimmy Kimmel told her she had a decent chance of going to hell. I met her around this time at an event she was covering at the New York Public Library, and the first thing she said to me was that she’d heard going out with me made a mutual friend of ours puke and cry. It wasn’t exactly true (the real causes were, respectively, too much vodka and some other guy), but it was a way of getting straight to it that made me figure we’d be either friends or enemies for life.
Gould quit professional blogging after a year and wrote about the experience for the New York Times Magazine. (Perhaps because she appeared on its cover, she became a minor figure of gossip herself.) A $200,000 deal for a book of essays resulted. And the Heart Says Whatever was published in 2010. A few months ago, she wrote about the book’s failure in the marketplace: It sold eight thousand copies, “about a fifth of what it needed to sell not to be considered a flop.” But selling wasn’t the only thing on her mind:
Imagine me three years later, watching the premiere of Girls for free on YouTube and reaching the scene in which Lena Dunham, whose character is writing a book of autobiographical essays and trying to convince her parents that she needs to stay on the teat to finish it. “I think that I may be the voice of my generation,” Dunham says, bravely and unconvincingly, and then amends herself: “or at least a voice of a generation.” It’s a great scene, the elevator pitch for the whole groundbreaking show. She turned her life into art—award-winning, apartment-buying, wildly popular art—which is something I’m still trying to do. Watching her do it has been excruciating. That could have been me, I catch myself thinking, but of course it couldn’t have been, or at least it isn’t.
I moved out of Brooklyn three years ago, and I’ve often wondered if watching in Girls the imitation of their milieu on the small screen hasn’t had crazy-making effects on the people who ride the G train. Does seeing local behaviors turned into televisual clichés induce a kind of warped feedback loop where bad sex and thwarted pursuit of self-actualization are just sort of zeitgeisty things to do? In those years, Gould has kept her head working odd jobs (e.g., as a yoga instructor), hosting an online video series in which she cooked meals with writers, and starting Emily Books, a feminist e-book subscription service that brings readers to avant-gardists and writers’ writers like Eileen Myles, Renata Adler, Ariana Reines, Sarah Schulman, and Helen DeWitt. Not the sort of activities that get you a ticket to hell.
Gould’s new book is a novel called Friendship, and this is a review of it by a friend (and sometime editor) of the author. (Those in the mood to watch a bridge burn will be disappointed it didn’t make me reach for my arson kit.) The novel’s governing question is: Can our friends save us? Standing in for “us”—by which I mean New Yorkers under forty pursuing vaguely bohemian lives, with attenuated relations to their provincial families and easily dissolved (if any) romantic bonds—are two young women, Amy Schein and Bev Tunney, both aspiring writers with little to show for it. In their early twenties they met as editorial assistants at a big publishing house and now at the talismanic age of thirty find themselves adrift: childless, single, working at lousy jobs and living in dingy apartments. Things get worse. The mode of Friendship is comic, but it’s also a work of naturalism, as the forces of the market conspire with our heroines’ vanities and insecurities to put them up against the wall. Think of it as Dreiser goes to Brooklyn.
Amy is a recognizable Gould alter ego, on the downslope from a stint as a gossip blogger, a “job that had made her, momentarily, famous, or at least notorious; now that she was neither, it mattered less which one it had been.” She’s working for Yidster, “the third-most-popular online destination for cultural coverage with a modern Jewish angle,” a vanity project founded by two sibling heirs to a hosiery fortune and run by a chain-smoking Israel Defense Forces veteran. She has an apartment she can’t afford, an emotionally distant artist boyfriend, and dreams about diamond rings so shiny they blind all who see them. She makes a “decent salary” but lives hand to mouth, with a bank account still linked to her mother’s, “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.” As for her self-image: “Being pretty, or whatever Amy was from the right angle, had always struck her as overrated: an invitation to a lame party you never wanted to go to in the first place but somehow didn’t quite want to leave once you got there.” From another angle, in the words of a homeless man she passes on the street, she’s one of those “stuck-up bitches who think they’re the only person in the world.” Fictional third-person narration has a liberating effect for Gould: It frees her to be cruel again and to spray some of the acid at her own alter ego.
Amy’s friend and foil Bev has a different set of problems. Her career has been a series of false starts—at the publishing house, at a literary agency, in an MFA program she dropped out of—interrupted by a yearlong hiatus in Wisconsin, where she worked in a wine shop and lived with a boyfriend who had left New York for law school. He turned out to be cheating on her with a blonde, who died in a car wreck. When Bev fills out a form at a temp agency in the novel’s first chapter, that year is marked as “travel.” She has lower expectations than Amy, and a bit more horror at the prospect of ever returning to the place she came from: Her family are evangelicals, and there’s no going back. But for all her drinking and smoking and deracination, there’s still something sturdy and midwestern about her. It comes through when she learns after a one-night stand with a coworker from a discarded temp job that she’s pregnant. After a decade of unfulfilling office jobs, unfaithful boyfriends, and un-grown-up friends, having a baby—in the terms set forth in one of Gould’s epigraphs, from David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King—is a way “to be less free, by deciding to choose in some kind of definite way.”
After a meandering first half that fills in backstory and lights up set pieces in restaurants (“they ordered their free-range, grass-fed Whopper equivalents”), trains (“in this morning subway light no one looked too great”), and bars (a dive with “patrons so poor and unattractive that it seemed like an elaborate re-creation of a bar in a different city (say, Philadelphia)”), the pregnancy becomes the driver of the plot. If Bev’s much-delayed decision to have the baby (not much of a spoiler) has a whiff of Juno or Knocked Up about it, it’s without the reactionary family-values politics; Gould imagines something different, and it’s perhaps no accident that the men in the novel are at best less than reliable and at worst treacherous. Present in glimpses from the start, a third principal character comes to the fore midway through: Sally, an erstwhile stripper and East Village personality now ensconced upstate with a wealthy husband named Jason, with whom she’s trying and failing to have a kid. After Amy and Bev rent their house for the weekend, Sally emerges as a possible partner in child rearing. She and Jason enter the plot with their checkbooks and credit cards in hand, and it’s enough to say their rich-people imperatives start to rattle Bev and Amy.
It would take a team of Stanford graduate students to quantify how much novels emanating from Brooklyn have undergone pervasive changes in the past decade. During the Bush administration, the borough’s literary production was notorious for its narcissism, its magic realism, and its recourse to comic-book heroics and YA plotlines. Parallel to millennial Brooklyn’s more-or-less-realistic emergence on television, Friendship draws a picture of unmanageable rent hikes, pill proliferation, washed-out romance, service employment, and all-around precariousness. I was surprised to learn Gould’s implied answer to the question “Can our friends save us?” Maybe, maybe not.
Christian Lorentzen is an editor at the London Review of Books.