#tobyreads: From Comedies of Manners to Surreal Crimes


The other night, I was out with friends talking books, as tends to happen more than a little frequently. The subject of agency of main characters came up; the question of whether a particular central character was more proactive or reactive. This is something I think about a lot, both as a reader and as a writer. There have been things I’ve written that, on reflection, seem to be more or less a series of things happening to someone than an actual narrative. Admittedly, this can absolutely be made to work–and it’s something that, I think, Emily Gould handles well, and with subtlety, in her new novel Friendship.

At its core, Friendship is (as the title suggests) about a pair of friends, Amy and Bev. Amy works as an editor for a website dedicated to Jewish culture after a high-profile job imploded; Bev has gone the temping route after dropping out of an MFA program. Subtle but effective riffs on hometowns, class, and aesthetics run through the novel. And in the sections dedicated to Amy’s media experience, there’s a fine riff on what happens when people who don’t understand technology try to implement it. The novel’s plot involves Amy and Bev encountering a successful couple about a decade their senior; Bev becoming pregnant after a brief fling with a co-worker; and Amy grappling with her own workplace drama.

What impressed me the most about Friendship was how neither Amy nor Bev entirely fit into the role of protagonist. Amy, in particular, repeatedly refuses to take certain actions that might affect the course she’s on; partway through the novel, I realized that this was the point, and that Amy’s character arose less out of action or inaction than out of simply refusing to act. That Gould is able to create bittersweet comedy from this is no small feat. Friendship is a comedy of manners, a dissection of human interaction, and a quietly satirical look at a certain section of city life.

At the opposite pole from Gould’s novel is God$ Fare No Better, a novel that J. David Osborne is releasing in segments. The first, The Joy of Killing Coyotes, begins with elements suggesting that we’re in crime-fiction territory–a random killing, an undercover police operation–and quickly turns surreal. There’s a drug that stops time for those using it; there’s a man who hallucinates worm-like creatures hovering in his field of vision; and there’s a killer, called the Serpent, whose jaws allow him to devour his victims. The blend of realism and the fantastical ups the sense that anything is possible here, and Osborne’s structure, which leaps around in time, pushes that even further. Needless to say, I’m curious to see where things go from here.

While visiting India last year, friends of mine picked me up a copy of Charu Nivedita’s novel Zero Degree. It’s a surreal, fragmented work, with conscious nods to the Oulipo and the work of Kathy Acker. At times, the narrative is a realistic work about poverty and violence; at other times, it riffs on mythology, immortality, and flame wars. And sometimes, the novel’s narrator (at least one of them–there are several) pauses things entirely and comments about the fragmentation at hand. It’s heady, headlong stuff.

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