Forrest Gander

2019 Pulitzer Prize

As a Friend, Reviewed by Robert Bodendorf for The Hampden-Sydney Review

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Forrest Gander is a poet who has written a novel, though it may seem a stretch at first to call As a Friend a novel, because while it has a discernible plot, it’s fragmented like stream-of-consciousness short stories. And then it’s the poetic language that keeps us from letting go, or from doing some menial task we need to do but we can’t because we’re so close to knowing what Gander wants us to know. Each chapter explores the crisis point in the lives of four people. In Sarah’s chapter, we get the most poetry, with some pages burdened only with thirteen lines, and line breaks in the middles of the pages. Consider:

Yesterday the snow came, bearing no message.

The wooden chair on which you sat at your desk.

How you wrapped your shins behind the front legs.

Empty of you. Dormant.

It is passages like these that make us suspect a poem is about to erupt from the surface.

But don’t let the poetic tendencies of this book fool you; it is also, as it says on the cover, a novel, with the unmistakable rhythms of good fiction. Maybe it’s the torrent of the emotional crises or the panting pace of the section “Sarah: Beyond This Point, Monsters,” or maybe it’s the way the narrative voice interacts with such a visceral setting, but either way, As a Friend plows along like a stallion trying to buck its rider off. Graceful and powerful. Uncontrollable yet in control. Just read the end of the section “Clay: Landscape with a Man Being Killed by a Snake”:

It’s a barren feeling to know at the age of twenty five that you’ve already lived the most intense period of your life, that a vividness has blazed up and short-circuited something in you and you will remember what it felt like to be alive but not feel it again, and you won’t even want to remember, can’t bear it, it’s too ploughed with guilt and pain. It seemed all of a sudden like a wind had slacked off and I was left leaning off-balance in a world something considerable had passed through. Once I had choices. Then it was as if my life leaped out of my body.

The book explores life at its climaxes, its absolute moments of crisis. It is so vivid and high-energy that we must force ourselves to break away. And when we do, we don’t care if we call this book fiction or poetry or both, we just know we are in the hands of the real thing: art.