Part sendup, part anxious self-portrait: "Friendship" and the new Brooklyn novel

From Adelle Waldman to Emily Gould, why is it so hard to find the universal in this specific milieu?

Published July 1, 2014 11:00PM (EDT)

Emily Gould      (Simon & Schuster/Salon)
Emily Gould (Simon & Schuster/Salon)

I recently followed an argument on Twitter related to Emily Gould's new novel. (No, not that one: My instinct is to stay as far as possible from that sad, scary ordeal.)  Instead, I'm referring to a different controversy entirely: about whether or not there is a preponderance of “Caucasian, Ivy-educated writers of literary fiction set in Brooklyn.” The central point of the disagreement was not the Ivy part (which to me seemed difficult to quantify without a lot of alumni magazine trawling), but whether there are a lot of novels set in Brooklyn.  It’s true that the word “Brooklyn” appears in the bios of so many writers that it has acquired a talismanic blanketing effect, and should rightly be considered separate from the contents of the books these writers produce.  But I can confirm, based on my own reading list this spring, that there is no shortage of fiction set in Brooklyn. In fact, you could almost say that the Lethems and, more recently, the Lins have been supplanted: It’s been a dazzling couple of years for the women of Brooklyn.

There was Jenny Offill’s “Department of Speculation,” a novel in lovely pieces that earns its formidable hype. There was Adelle Waldman’s “The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.,” a smart (seeming) roman à clef told from the perspective of a 30-year-old male writer and rake.  There was a more recent debut, Julia Fierro’s “Cutting Teeth,” a compulsively readable if occasionally schlocky novel full of trenchant, squirm-inducing detail about bougie Brooklyn parents.  The books are not a matched set by any means, but they overlap considerably; mostly they are about the same group of creative class people -- either actually affluent or having amassed some amount of cultural capital -- with an age differential of about 10 years. These people live in a very particular mode of Brooklyn. And now, Internet veteran Emily Gould joins their narrow milieu.

Gould’s debut novel, “Friendship,” arrives freighted with the mixed blessing of her name recognition. When I first began reading Gould online, I found she blurred together with a cadre of people who wrote raw things for mass consumption on the Internet, and who made me feel a mix of puritanical loathing and envy that I subsequently realized were in fact mostly the same sentiment.  In the years since I first watched Gould’s eyebrows wiggle in combat on camera (a quirk she describes early in her novel), I have so mellowed on this score that when several months ago she published a long, candid essay on the financial realities of writing a novel -- a piece that resonated with some people and thoroughly annoyed others -- I immediately pre-ordered her book.  I’m a youngish urban cat-lover with aspirations, too; I want people like me to succeed.  (I’m also a writer, one who has never been paid more than $300 for something I’ve written. If there’s a little schadenfreude in reading about someone blowing through an astronomical advance -- received for a collection of personal essays, of all things -- there’s a greater measure of admiration for anyone who remits a frank accounting of her untidy finances.)

Thus I started the novel with a feeling of anxiety and a set of baggage that is hardly fair, but is basically standard-issue when it comes to reading novels by people who are more or less your age and live in Brooklyn and were once paid $200,000 for a compilation of their feelings.  Early in “Friendship,” the artistic fruits of Gould’s penury, a 30-year-old woman rides the train to an interview for a temp job.  This is Bev, who, confronted with a question about her life’s aspirations on the agency application, notes the late hour and scribbles down her responses: “The truth, as usual, came to her more easily than fiction.”  I worried that this was a portent — either a clumsy, knowing one, or something inadvertent but no less unfortunate.  It’s true that the obvious Gould corollary in the novel is the other character in the titular friendship: Amy Schein, a one-time editor at a major New York gossip blog, now a floundering has-been at “the third-most-popular online destination for cultural coverage with a modern Jewish angle.” But the line still seemed ominous.  When it comes to the truth, Gould has real chops.  Fiction is necessarily another ball game.

It turns out, though, that many of the chops can be transferred.  Bev, riding toward a temp job where she will meet the future absentee father of her child, is dressed in a “jacket and skirt that were slightly different shades of black.”  At the job, Bev will worry about operating a multiline office phone, which takes on an “aura of menace.” In Bev’s previous incarnation as a publishing assistant, her office clothes were “poly-blend jackets and skirts from the part of H&M where you went when, broke, you still had to try to dress for the job you wanted.” After hours, she and Amy drink at a bar where “the beers were so cheap and the patrons so poor and unattractive that it seemed like an elaborate re-creation of a bar in a different city (say, Philadelphia).”  Amy’s prospects have always seemed better than Bev’s, both when she occupied a higher rung on a publishing house ladder, or even in their respective third acts, when her job at Yidster provides the salary and benefits that Bev’s temp positions don’t. But Amy still lives paycheck to paycheck, and “being reminded of this made her uncomfortable, and feeling uncomfortable made her want to stop on the way home from work at a gourmet grocery store and spend eleven dollars on a two-ounce jar of pine nuts.”

“Friendship” is full of these details, and for people who can relate, they have a rueful, even tender quality.  I’ve never lived in New York, but like many women, I have worn mismatched blacks to an interview at a temp agency because I didn’t have a suit. I have cobbled together business-casual from a makeup-smeared selection of $11 H&M separates.  I have been menaced by multiline phones, and purchased insane grocery items I could ill afford.  Like Bev, I have studied menus prior to dinners I know I won’t pay for, and like Amy, I have said horrible, judgmental things in bright sentences that turn up at the end.

These details can carry the novel a certain distance, but the story has to be there, too.  And in some ways it is: Bev becomes pregnant after a drunken night with a temp job casanova. Her pregnancy brings about the crisis of her and Amy’s friendship. The characters make decisions about their lives; rifts are occasioned and repaired by text message.

Gould’s talents hitherto have been mostly in the realm of self-expression, and suspicious readers may doubt her ability to convincingly depict second and third and fourth parties. But the central characters, Bev and Amy, are well drawn. The novel suffers in places that seem predictable for an essayist; it’s not a long novel, but a lot of big things happen very quickly and often too conveniently to its characters. A single email to Sally, an older and substantially richer married woman with no children, and Bev’s baby has a fairy godmother (and Amy an unlikely paramour). In her nadir, Amy walks past a soup kitchen needing volunteers; life begins to look up.  The plot occasionally shows its wires and string. But I still wanted to know what happened next.

Gould’s writing has often had a Holly Golightly quality that allows her to describe undesirable or at least embarrassing personal characteristics in a highly relatable way. (There are a number of Internet commenters who don’t agree with me; it’s worth noting, though, that 20th-century male writers have long achieved, nay, excelled at this style of self-expression, and had notoriously unorthodox finances, and mooched off partners and refused to get real jobs, and people don’t generally shit on them on the Internet.)  Taken with her Medium essay, Gould’s novel, and Amy’s descent from lofty media heights to retail chain manager, seem a bit like a personal exorcism--an admission of failure to thrive in an alluring but ultimately hostile landscape. And in its interest in this landscape and the society it engenders, “Friendship” is on familiar ground.

* * *

Many of the preoccupations shared by Gould, Waldman and their ilk are so similar as to seem a feature of Brooklyn’s very soil.  Of course, there are adjustments depending on the age of the characters — Jenny Offill and Julia Fierro’s characters grapple with marital desire and the raising of children; Adelle Waldman and Gould’s characters are, some of them perhaps permanently, in the pre-child phases of their respective existences.  But they worry about and do and admire similar things. These are people who wish their apartments were nicer but eat $24 entrees.  Amy’s fridge contains expensive pine nuts and “Moroccan oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes”; Offill’s narrator’s husband doubts that they could leave Brooklyn and live rustically because she “once spent $13 on a piece of cheese” and often reads “catalogs meant for the rich.”

The people in the new Brooklyn novels may have low checking balances, but they are not poor like the other people of Brooklyn, the people who, in “The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.,” patronize National Wines & Liquors, Inc., where both alcohol and cashier are behind bulletproof glass, instead of the “much newer Tangled Vine, which specialized in organic and local wines and exhibited the work of area artists at its Thursday-evening tastings.”  Even the truly affluent Brooklynites like Nicole, one of the mothers in “Cutting Teeth” -- the kind who have a “pristine Danish teak dining table” and “sixty-five-dollar organic candles” -- are worried about money: “She felt disappointed in her parents, who ... couldn’t ‘gift’ them money for a down payment like so many of her friends’ parents had, because wasn’t that the only way one could afford a home these days, even on a decent salary like [her husband] earned.”

These characters worry, and measure themselves against their peers; they all feel there is some spiritual channel through which they might live better lives.  After quitting her job, Gould’s character Amy pauses in front of a Buddhist temple but stops herself before ringing the bell. “What had she even been thinking -- that she would throw herself on the mercy of some wise old bodhisattva and learn to lead a life of mindful solitude?”  In Fierro’s novel, the Buddhist element surfaces as an orientalist and ill-advised character named Tenzin, a Tibetan refugee and nanny who is wiser than everyone else and whose own inner monologue is unjustly composed in the exotic rhythm of her spoken English (“Poor Mommy Susanna, Tenzin thought as she stared at the banana. So much throwing up of food”). Offill's narrator tells a joke: “Why couldn’t the Buddhist vacuum in corners? Because she had no attachments.”  (There’s something else these novels have in common, something critical: They all feature one or more writers.  For me, this was to some extent "Nathaniel P.’s" salient characteristic -- Is this what it takes to make it? I thought to myself. “Mild sociopathy and Mama Celeste?”)

Reading these novels in conjunction with one another, you see the potential barriers to art when a place and its attendant mode of being loom so large, like the weather in books about Florida.  These novels are dense with atmosphere, filled with details so pointed that they seem like they should be satirical, but are not exactly satirical.  You also wonder if they are the last gasp of a decadent, doomed society. “Cutting Teeth,” Fierro’s Boschian tableau of parents so uniformly pitiable or unlikable, or both, is such that I almost hoped the anxieties of one character, a woman who is obsessed with a coming apocalypse, will be vindicated with a cleansing meteor strike.  The characterizations feel like sendups, but there is such a narrow margin of authorial distance between the sender and the sendee that it can be difficult to tell whether they are biting social critiques or anxious self-portraits. I suppose they are both.

Like characters in a somewhat less swashbuckling Jack London novel, these are all characters, and writers, who are grappling with their environments. Waldman’s novel seems less anxious on this front, because she has written the protagonist himself as a kind of Brooklyn landmark, like the Green-Wood Cemetery.  His dress, his attitudes, his haunts are assembled, Baedeker-like, as a feature of a Brooklyn where “everyone turned up everywhere. Though the parts of Brooklyn congenial to people in their demographic had expanded dramatically in a widening web of faux-dives and mysteriously hip restaurants, to Nate the place seemed never to have been smaller, so dense was it with people he knew.”

* * *

I recently read a quote from Teju Cole’s latest book, wherein, invoking Updike, he expressed “a vague pity for all those writers who have to ply their trade from sleepy American suburbs, writing divorce scenes symbolized by the very slow washing of dishes.”  Around the same time, the Scottish novelist J.M. Ledgard argued for a broader approach to fiction (an approach he takes in his own work): “If literary fiction is reduced to only middle-class families dealing only with middle-class angst, then it’s really finished as a force for grappling with the world.”

I do feel, reading these novels, the cramp of white sameness that once characterized the suburbs and their novels, full of a mass of people who differed only incrementally in income and occupation. Brooklyn, despite its huge size, has carved out a narrow, half-revered, half-reviled space in contemporary literature, like the suburbs did in previous generations, and the parallel is somewhat borne out by Atlantic articles and Times style pieces on demographic trends and the reverse suburban-to-urban exodus.  (Moreover, the foods of Brooklyn and the aesthetics of Brooklyn have a way of creeping, like big box stores used to creep, until one imagines that one day the whole country will be shrouded in organic burlap and twine.)  When people talk about literary sameness of the 2000s, it won’t be Olinger or Westchester or Gibbsville -- perhaps it will be Park Slope and Williamsburg and Greenpoint.

While I don’t want to pick on Cole or Ledgard for things they didn’t quite say, reading both statements, I involuntarily bristled. On the one hand, the classifications seem either to track so narrowly -- Updike, Cheever, Yates, O’Hara -- or so broadly as to envelop the entirety of modern fiction. (“Madame Bovary,” for example, involved washing up, suburbs and middle-class angst.)  But mostly, the remarks bugged me because they disregard the population for whom washing dishes and experiencing family angst was the most likely form of enterprise, and which was simultaneously woefully underrepresented in the literary class: women.  The raising of children, the cultivation of family, the upkeep of the home -- these have been the province of women, and yet men have evidently managed to wear them out as literary fodder.   (On a related note, if Adelle Waldman convincingly inhabits a man with Nathaniel P., I have to believe that it’s partially thanks to the past 70 years of American fiction -- the Bellows, Irvings, Roths who painstakingly catalogued the ways that men regard women).  This batch of Brooklyn novels isn’t exactly about women douching themselves to death on tree-lined blocks.  But I thought of Cole when I read Offill’s narrator here: “All right then, this thing clogging the sink.  I reach my hand into the murky water, fiddle with the drain.  When I pull it back out, my hand is scummed with grease.”

I was interested in Gould’s characters because, like Bev, I have bad shirts from H&M and want to be a writer.  But, also like Bev, and more significantly these days, I’m pregnant.  I worry about how to be a person and a mother.  I’d like to know how to avoid becoming as neurotic as Fierro’s characters, or at least how to recognize the warning signs.  I wonder, like Offill’s narrator, how to have a child and write a book and keep a man, to have both artistic fulfillment and domestic bliss: “I lie in our bed and listen to the hum of the air conditioner and the soft sound of their breathing.  Amazing.  Out of dark waters, this.”  I was weaned on Irvings and Bellows and Roths; sometimes I’m hungry for books that look probingly at the contemporary places that produced them, that talk about women and motherhood and writing in a world I can mostly recognize. While the unrelenting atmosphere of Brooklyn novels, the arugula pizzas and gravlax toasts and privileged-person financial anxieties can oppress and eventually madden, I found things I wanted, at varying levels of elegance, in these novels.

I know that, though these are books by women, they are all white women, all of a plugged-in writerly class.  I suspect that the more books like this there are, the fewer books are promoted from other horizons. It shouldn't be that way. But I also think that there is value, even excellence, even transcendence, to be had in familiar territory.

By Lydia Kiesling

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