In spite of its deceptive title, Emily Gould's new novel, "Friendship," offers a vivid exploration of the missed connections and overwhelming isolation of modern urban life. From the first few pages to the last, Gould's central characters, Bev and Amy, struggle to find fulfillment in matching bubbles of confusion and self-doubt, navigating the perils of go-nowhere jobs, nonexistent or evasive boyfriends, and eroding companionship against a backdrop of opportunism and financial panic.
It's this panic, incited by the boom and bust cycles of late capitalism and not some sense of lost support or friendship in peril, that propels Gould's narrative forward. Because everywhere her educated, early-thirtysomething characters go, they feel like impostors who may never achieve the secure, satisfying lives they once figured would come easily to them.
Bev views her job interview outfit as a "costume" and laments the sorry state of her career and her finances: "If she could somehow work at this temp placement for the next twenty years and not spend any money on food or rent, she would be able to pay back her student loan by the time she was seventy-five." Meanwhile, Amy wastes her days perusing social media sites instead of doing any real work for the website that employs her as an editor. When the site's lightweight founders ask her to ad-lib pointless videos to boost their hit count, Amy realizes that "[s]he had finally sucked her way to the icky cordial at the center of her candy-sweet job."
In a quintessentially modern — and American — paradox, Bev and Amy are lucky, but their lives feel impoverished. They are clean and well fed and the world is their oyster, but somehow none of these obvious advantages add up to a happy, relaxing existence. Instead, they must endure pointless jobs to afford the exorbitant rent and the overpriced drinks and meals of New York City. Although Gould's story may make readers want to shake each woman and say, "Sell the high-heeled shoes! Move to a cheaper place and get an ordinary job! Do something — anything — different from what you're doing right now!," that seems to be the point: to unearth the frustrations of entitled young people with creative aspirations who find themselves knocking up against the limitations of a post-boom economy.
Gould's willfully sparse prose often focuses on minutiae (Bev smokes Parliament cigarettes, buys tickets to see Sleater-Kinney, and shops at H&M; Amy wears Marc Jacobs, drinks Poland Spring water, and watches "Keeping Up With the Kardashians"). Her novel is notably devoid of the melancholy images and flourishes more common to young fiction writers with literary aspirations. But this flat, unapologetically honest tone and fixation on the mundane are arguably what make Gould's story unique and compulsively readable. Instead of serving up one weighty, overwrought scene after another, Gould constructs her world from exactly the same empty building blocks that make up plenty of lives today: "Wikipedia rabbit holes" substitute for actual work; Twitter supplements real, face-to-face friendships; emoticons take the place of honest, direct expressions of feeling.
While trivial details sometimes threaten to upstage moments of insight or reflection, Gould clearly has a knack for letting the absurdities of modern life speak for themselves. When Bev comes to the question "What are your grandest aspirations?" on a temp agency application, Gould writes, "There were spaces for three grand aspirations, each space about half a line long." Later in the book, Amy, ever-preoccupied by wealth, encounters her lover's body as "smooth, cool-skinned, and somehow expensive-looking." Even his manhood has "the ergonomic look of a high-end sex toy."
But the novel's most urgent and dramatic scenes are those where Bev or Amy sally forth in solitude, ordering lunches they can't afford or accepting jobs they don't want. Perpetually distracted and preoccupied by their separate obsessions, Bev and Amy's conversations mimic the parallel play of young children, with each woman rarely receiving solace or even a listening ear from the other. The two seem to view each other through a lens warped by unsympathetic cultural critique.
When Bev gets pregnant and considers keeping the baby, Amy is worried that she'll start "fetishizing children and domesticity" the way Us magazine does, as if those are "the only legtimate goals women's lives can have." But, Amy also admits, "I just want things to go back to how they were before you got pregnant." Bev soon realizes that her friend is stuck in the past and may never be able to make room for anyone but herself. When a co-worker asks her if any of her friends have kids, she replies, "My closest friends? No, they're still more in the … behaving like infants themselves stage."
It's somewhat ironic that Gould, a well-known former Gawker writer and author of the revealing but uneven memoir "And The Heart Says Whatever," is often portrayed in the media as a spoiled product of her times, since "Friendship" so knowingly and skillfully reveals the ways that a spoiled existence — spending recklessly while enduring leisurely but soul-sucking new media jobs and unnervingly detached relationships — add up to a particular form of hell. Gould details exactly how an overactive mind, with nowhere to land, runs wild in a rarefied vacuum.
Still, it's not hard to long for a little more from Gould, considering her writing talent — more stretching for the divine, more exertion in pursuit of higher meaning. But she seems to have little interest in such things. She focuses, instead, on painting a bewildering urban nowhereland where small indulgences and fleeting distractions sometimes take on the glow of salvation. But then, when you're desperate and desperately alone and trying to navigate your way toward something that feels like home, a twinkling satellite can be easily mistaken for the north star.
Havrilesky is author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness."
Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 258 pp., $26