By Emily Gould
Farrar Straus Giroux. 258 pp. $26
Emily Gould likes to write about herself. Perhaps her most famous autobiographical treatise is the one that appeared in 2008 on the cover of the New York Times magazine, in which the Silver Spring native bared her tattoos as well as her soul, detailing the perils of oversharing on the Internet — and then proceeded to castigate herself for doing so for roughly 8,000 words.
Her writing has caused complications both personal and professional. As a popular hit-girl for the gossip site Gawker, she had taken swipes at New York’s elite, and eventually there was backlash, most notably a confrontation with Jimmy Kimmel on “Larry King Live.” And shortly after the publication of her essay collection, “And the Heart Says Whatever” in 2010, Gould’s immediate family stopped speaking to her, she has said. Her mother was especially upset about how she had been portrayed. Gould later wrote (on the Internet, of course), “I owed her an apology but couldn’t muster one that would satisfy her.”
Now Gould has traded first-person confessional for third-person fiction: Her debutnovel, “Friendship,” came out this week. But if her goal was to distance herself from her subject — herself — she has not succeeded. Much of the material, in fact, feels ripped from the headlines that Gould has said she is trying to escape.
One of the novel’s protagonists is Amy Schein, a 30-year-old who had “somehow snagged a high-profile job at a locally prominent gossip blog mocking New York City’s rich, powerful, corrupt, ridiculous elite,” but “had made the mistake of mocking the wrong, rich, powerful person.”
As Gould did, Amy lives in an apartment near the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. Like Gould, she has a boyfriend of Russian descent. Even the name of Schein’s cat, Waffles, sounds awfully close to Raffles, the late pet she thanks in the novel’s acknowledgments.
These autobiographical details aside, the book will feel familiar to anyone who has read or seen or clicked on one of the many books or TV shows or Web sites about creative 20-something women coming of age in New York: Think Lena Dunham’s “Girls” or Greta Gerwig in “Frances Ha.”
To be sure, Gould is a gifted documentarian. The novel is filled with keenly observed details, especially about the outsize role that technology plays in her characters’ lives. “Are those Google predictions real?” Amy asks at one point. “Do they work? They do, don’t they. Okay, cool, another thing I have to start paying attention to so that my life can be fully efficient and optimized.” And Gould can draw a scathing character description: “Shoshana’s beauty disappeared the minute she opened her mouth; all that glowing skin and shimmering hair couldn’t compensate for the kind of voice you immediately associate with someone calling from the temple sisterhood to remind you it’s your turn to plate the oneg after Shabbat service.”
But the phlegmatic plot is paradoxically predictable and unbelievable, pushed along by a string of coincidences: people showing upat just the right time with life-changing news, a cellphone signal fading out at the most important moment.
The narrative follows the ups and downs of Amy and her best friend, Bev Tunney, who met while working in a New York publishing company. Bev (based loosely, Gould says, on her friend Ruth Curry, whom she met while both were working in book publishing) is the meeker of the two. A Midwesterner whose career aspirations were derailed by a bad relationship, she is sorely in need of a life transformation. When the book opens, she is frantically trying to fill out a temp-agency application on the subway. When she emerges at her stop, it begins to rain on the paperwork in which she is describing her three “grandest aspirations”: “achieve financial stability,” “find community” and “feel like I’m playing an important part in life.”
Guess what happens by the end of the book?
Yes, there are obstacles, but it turns out that the biggest one is not an unexpected pregnancy or even a failed MFA experience but her relationship with the self-involved, volatile Amy.
Amy, too, confrontsa series of hurdles, the most important of which is getting over her masochistic fascination with living on the edge. After quitting her job at Yidster, an online Jewish magazine, Amy’s life collapses, taking her friendship with Bev down with it. She must reach rock bottom — one of the signs, apparently, is being forced to move back to Silver Spring — before finally getting the cold slap she’s needed all along.
“Oh, sweetheart, cut the crap,” a D.C. ad executive tells Amy in a job interview. “You’re here because you’re thirty and you just realized you actually care about making money.” She then tries to rob Amy of her most precious possession — her righteous sense of uniqueness: “Honey, I was just like you,” she says. “I lived my twenties in New York City, thought I’d be a little Joanie Didion, packing my suitcase for reporting jobs with a leotard and a bottle of bourbon.” What Amy needs, the woman says, is a rich husband or a great job.
It would not be giving away too much to say that Amy realizes there’s another thing she needs even more: cue the book’s title.
Krug is an editor at Book World.