Forrest Gander

2019 Pulitzer Prize

As a Friend, Reviewed by A. D. Jameson for Context: the Review of Contemporary Fiction

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As a Friend is the short first novel by poet, translator, and essayist Forrest Gander; its four sections, intriguingly, read like chapters from four different books.

The first section describes the central character Les's birth in the hyperbolic style of a Southern gothic, while the third (and most sweetly powerful) records his girlfriend Sarah's fragmented reflections on their relationship. The second and longest section sketches out the novel's simple story, being a sequence of prose anecdotes narrated by Clay, a young man whose unrequited love for Les sets in motion the book's culminating but oblique tragedy. Clay, true to his name, tells us that he's imitating Les, remolding himself into the obscure object of his desire, though his mimicry exceeds his grasp: whereas Les slips easily through a lyrically romantic world of insects, birds, and flowers, Clay, sweating heavily, remains swarmed by gnats and ticks. So much talk of Les renders him a semi-legendary figure, a supposed poet (though we never see any of his poetry, only that which he inspires in others), but he might more accurately be described as a serial bullshitter who "took lying to be creative" (his own name repeatedly suggesting "lies"). In the fourth and final section we are finally given Les's voice, but it proves anticlimactic--"outtakes from the film interview" that conceal more than they clarify. (Sarah alludes to Les's experiences with a filmmaker, but the nature of the source film remains deliberately mysterious.)

What binds the four sections, besides Gander's assured command of tone and each narrator's shared obsession with Les, are fleeting, recurring images (a mantis, a leather cock ring) that portend much but upon reflection explain nothing— like friendship?