Reviewed by Victoria
This book broke a late-summer reading slump I was wallowing in, and I am as grateful to it as a reader can be, who has despaired over finding the story that will finally pique their full, wholehearted interest. When I picked it up, I had no idea who Emily Gould was – and the chances are if you’re living in the UK, you won’t know either. But all the reviews I read of it once I’d finished the book declared that it made better sense when you were aware of her history. So I duly looked her up and discovered she made a name for herself on the Gawker site, a somewhat vitriolic mish-mash of celebrity/social media types news, and got into trouble in a television interview about their ‘celebrity stalking’ map of New York. Given that her private life was also lived on the internet for a while, this caused ructions, too, when an ex-boyfriend wrote extensively about their relationship. And this all took place in her twenties, when she was the same age as the characters in Friendship. Which I think goes to show that whatever you feel, or don’t feel, about Emily Gould, her story is rooted in authentic experience, even if that experience is closer to the end of the scale than most of us get.
So, Friendship concerns, surprise, two friends, Amy and Bev. They met several years ago when both were working grunt jobs at a publishing house and are still very close now they are heading up to their thirties. When we meet them, their lives are suffering from fatal entropy. Amy briefly found fame and fortune working on an internet gossip site (see above), and when that job came to an ignominious end she was plucked out of the pool by another internet start-up called Yidster, a website about all things Jewish. Although she’s supposed to be the big name presence there, the whole thing is a joke. The bosses swan in and out with ridiculous ideas they have no real strategies to implement and most of the time Amy larks about online, wasting her time away until another day ends. She’s bored and idle, but the money is good (and Amy is always out of cash) and isn’t being paid for doing nothing what most people dream of?
Bev, meanwhile, has had a different sort of setback. She left New York and her slowly burgeoning career for a love affair. Relocation to the Midwest seemed a happy ending at the time, but of course her relationship went sour, broke up in pain and regret and now she’s back in New York, reduced to signing up with temping agencies, her self-esteem so low that, dreadful as her actual work may be, she’s relieved when she has nothing more taxing than photocopying to do.
At the start of the novel, Amy seems to be the more enviable of the two – and although I use this word almost ironically here, envy is a powerful force in the novel, one of the few emotions left that remains culturally sanctioned for the young and utterly pervasive, bound up as it is with the inexorable shallowness and superficiality of internet culture. Amy has a nice apartment and she’s in a commited relationship with Sam, an artist. But as the novel progresses, there’s a distinct shift in the universe of their friendship. Amy gives up her job in a tantrum and her landlord keeps on gaily increasing the rent. Her relationship turns out to be less commited than she thought it was, and Amy can’t seem to make the right decision or do the right thing.
Bev, on the other hand, has had enough of her futile existence, and when a one-night stand results in a surprise pregnancy, it seems like the moment to turn her life around. Amy, however, has other plans for her friend, as a weekend of housesitting upstate introduces them to Sally, a rich woman who is desperate for a baby, and whose wealth might solve all their problems at once.
There were lots of things I loved about this novel, primarily the voice it’s written in, which is funny and witty and sharp as a tack. I completely believed the friendship between the two young women, and loved their everyday banter. I can imagine that some readers might complain that they are not ‘sympathetic’ characters, but THAT WOULD BE THE WHOLE POINT. Bev and Amy are sick of themselves and their aimless lives; they know they are wasting their potential and missing their opportunities and the trajectory of the story shows them both coming to separate realisations about this and striving to do better.
What’s really intriguing is the way Emily Gould uses the internet as the central cultural information system in their lives, its values and structures morphing into their values and structures. Today’s youth are not the bright-eyed bushy tailed young folk of the 1930s who hadn’t ever heard of rebellion, honored their parents and were ready to lay down their lives for their country. Today’s youth – at least some of them – are disaffected and dulled, mesmerised by the promise of easy riches, with no one ever having asked enough of them when growing up or expected them to become responsible. Gould shows a sort of extended adolescence that lasts into the late twenties, and I couldn’t help but recognise the truth in this as I was reading. I thought this was an entertaining, insightful novel about coming to your senses before it is too late and one of the most intriguing novels about contemporary culture I’ve read in a long time.
Emily Gould, Friendship (Virago: London, 2015). 978-0349004419, 304pp., paperback.