Forrest Gander

2019 Pulitzer Prize

As a Friend, Reviewed by Alex Verdolini for The College Hill Independent

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The greatest difficulties of Forrest Gander's novel,
As a Friend, lie in the first and last of its four sections. I nearly failed to make it through the opening, "The Birth," which quite vividly relates a teenager's ordeal on the gurney and her son's gruesome entry into the world. The closing chapter, a broken-up posthumous monologue called "Les: Outtakes from the Film Interview," feels at first as though it matches its title too faithfully; it fades out in a troubling deceleration.

Yet it becomes evident that these two chapters--and what might be called their awkwardness--are wholly necessary to the novel's flowing, intriguing interior. They are its birth and death, its creation myth and gentle apocalypse. They're the ritual motions that make its reality possible before finally sealing it off. They make the novel's sometimes floating, sometimes concrete world into its own hermetic whole--and that whole is worth whatever trouble its bookends might put the reader through.

As a Friend is a poet's novel, consummately so, and in at least two senses. Gander is a poet, the author, most recently, of the collection Eye Against Eye. The novel's timbre, moreover, is largely poetic; its prose is studded with intensely realized images, and it breaks, for an entire section, into a sinuous mélange of verse and verse-like passages. And then there's the protagonist, Les--an Arkansan poet, a land surveyor and, in the blurb's ginger words, a "gifted man"--whose very motion through the world is pressingly lyrical, and whose personal aura bears traces of Arthur Rimbaud and Seymour Glass.

(An aside: it's high time somebody put out a detailed comparison of these two equally fictitious poets--or, to be a bit more radical, these similarly uninvented men. A study like that might be revelant, in a certain way, to Forrest Gander's book.)

It is Les' ill-circumstanced birth that we observe in the first chapter; and it's Les, or Les' disembodied voice, which speaks in the last. Gander might have called the middle chapters "Les: An Introduction," if another novelist hadn't forestalled him.

In part two, "Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake"--named after a Poussin painting--Les' fellow-land surveyor Clay recounts his morbid, sexual obsession with his poet-colleague. Clay is an exquisitely realized character--he drifts subtly from prostrate admiration to deliberate hatred, a case study in the polymorphous perversity of friendship.

At one point, Les, Clay and a third surveyor are on their way home "from a party [...] for which all the guests, to gain entry, needed to be dressed as a character from a Dylan song." Clay is Maggie's brother and Les is Napoleon in rags. They stop at a Mr. Burger, and Clay is first in line. Standing in front of the cashier, he laughs "a fake little laugh that indicated to her that [he] knew [he] looked like an idiot, but [...] was just pretending to be an idiot, [he] wasn't really an idiot." Les follows and "straight-face[s] it right through"--putting Clay to shame. And at this moment, Clay's attitude towards Les shifts shape--from something like the imitatio Christi to a revolt against his own affection for the man. The episode is of a cinematic lucidity. Rather than prove the banality of ill intent, it zooms in to show just how much intriguing detail lurks in banal things.

In the third part, "After This Point, Monsters," Les' lover Sarah addresses him in the second person--after his death. "Monsters" consists largely of lyrical remembering, interspersed with Sarah's narrations of her present state--all of it set out in a mix of poetic prose and poetry.

The memories are sublimely jarring and evidence of an ardent imagistic intuition: "My last birthday. The living room unlit. I suspected a surprise, but before I could reach the light switch, you struck a match to the horse skull you'd hung from the ceiling and doused with lighter fluid. It was the most beautiful thing I ever saw. The slow liquid-blue flame in the shape of a horse's skull flowering into a new dimension, turning slowly on a string in the dark."
And finally, in the short coda, Les speaks for himself. It is tempting to read the poet-character as a mouthpiece for Gander--and to the reader in the grips of that attributive fallacy, Les' speech might seem a bit worn-out: "Maybe the best we can do is try to leave ourselves unprotected. To keep brushing off habits, how we see things and what we expect, as they crust around us. Brushing the green flies of the usual off the tablecloth. [...] To get a whiff of the stinking rich shit of the real." But these are "Outtakes" from a "Film Interview"--and real poets, like real painters, do sometimes speak like this: in a mixture of genuine enlightenment and enlightenment kitsch (the ersatz-oriental Seymour Glass is, once again, a useful reference). There are subtle sorts of irony at play. But most important is Les' conception of the poet--as a deliberately sensitive being, opening himself to a world of incredibly meaningful coincidences.

This particular conception of the poet as a kind of Cassandrian priest, his nerves bared to the secret undernetting of things, has been around a long time. In the modern period, it dates most recognizably to Baudelaire, who united in his 'correspondences' an aesthete's sensuality (Gautier) and a mystic's ascent toward the divine (Swedenborg). It has contented many novelists and poets to quote this sensibility--to sample it, in the sense of hip-hop backing tracks--without really practicing its art.

Gander practices it deeply; it's evident in the novel's structure and flow. As a Friend is highly episodic in its organization--and in Sarah's chapter, the episodes follow no instantly recognizable timeline, save what we'd call stream-of-consciousness. But let's have a look at how this stream behaves.
There's a form of Japanese poetry called renga--which is traditionally composed in a group. One member supplies the first stanza, another the second, and so on. Each stanza must be 'linked' thematically to the one before it--this link can take the form of an imagistic echo, a pun, or any other sort of commonality. One kind of link is of special interest: kokoro-zuke, the link-by-heart--the two paired stanzas just make sense together, but it's logically difficult or impossible to say precisely why.

The logic and feel of Gander's prose, the relation of paragraph to paragraph, of image to image, of one character's narration to another's, is strongly reminiscent of kokoro-zuke. Images like the burning horse skull surge up from nowhere, seemingly senselessly, but entirely, mystifyingly appropriate. And in this way, he maps out--without telling, or even showing us explicitly--the fretwork of correspondences, of subtle kokoro-zuke, that underlies the visible world and the psychic one, as well.

(Somewhere in northern Arkansas, Matsuo Bashō encounters Baudelaire. Both bow--the renga poet with economy and the décadent with a grave, mannered wrist-twirl. Then each departs his own way, through the pale matinal mist.)