Forrest Gander

2019 Pulitzer Prize

As a Friend, Reviewed by J. T. Townley for The Harvard Review

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Few poets have produced innovative first novels that explore such varied emotional terrain in so few page, while at the same time reminding us to “approach each other and the world with as much vulnerability as we can possibly sustain.”

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When we hear the word “novel,” many of us anticipate a long work of fictional prose that recounts a unified story involving many characters, a large swath of time, and a complex plot. Yet as J. M. Coetzee reminds us in Elizabeth Costello (2003), “the word novel, when it entered the language of Europe . . . meant the form of writing that was formless, that had no rules, that made up its own rules as it went along.” Despite the market demands of mega-conglomerate publishing, innovative writers such as David Markson, Carole Maso, and Steve Tomasula continue to subvert conventional expectations of what a novel might be. With his slim, haunting fiction debut, Forrest Gander, a “restlessly experimental” poet, translator, and essayist, has clearly positioned himself among the vanguard in contemporary fiction.

At just over a hundred pages,
As a Friend is a novel that, like most poetry, asks to be read slowly, then reread. Narrated in four chapters from four discrete perspectives, the novel opens as an anonymous girl, teenaged and unmarried, delivers an illegitimate son whom she gives up for adoption. Les, the man that boy becomes, is a land surveyor and poet-intellectual. In the second and longest chapter, we learn that Clay, a fellow surveyor in his mid-twenties, has fallen in love with him, but Les is married to Cora, a painter, lives with his lover, Sarah, a cellist, and keeps various other paramours all over town. Clay’s love proves mercurial, however, and soon he informs Cora about Sarah, and together the two women confront Les in “a hideous night of lies springing undone.” Crushed with guilt, Les commits suicide. In the third chapter, Sarah grieves for her lost lover in a whirl of sensuous memories coupled with bald accusations: “Your marriage wasn’t over . . . Wasn’t dead in the bed. Was it?” We don’t hear from Les himself until the final chapter, eight short pages of film interview outtakes, in which he admits, “I know I’ve hurt people I love. I’m sorry for it and I don’t see the point in defending myself.”

Many of Gander’s strengths as a poet are evident in
As a Friend. His figurative language is often vivid and unexpected; for instance, one character describes sliding into the hot cab of a pickup truck as “scooting into a coffin of baked air.” Gander’s writing is also rich with descriptions of the natural world, as when Clay observes “Two nuthatches . . . chasing each other around the scaley bark of a bull pine.” What’s more, like his poetry, his fiction carries an erotic charge: as Clay relates, “I felt . . . an undercurrent of throbbing obedience to [Les] that weakened the sockets behind my knees and sometimes gave me inconvenient hard-ons.” With their frequent line breaks, fragmented sentences, and shifts in tense and perspective, the last two chapters of As a Friend are reminiscent of Gander’s most innovative poetry, including The Blue Rock Collection (2004) and Eggplants and Lotus Root (1991).

On the other hand, Gander struggles with some of the basic technical elements of conventional narrative. For instance, several scenes in the first half of the novel are baggy and ineffectively paced, largely due to excessive description. He uses summarized dialogue to excess and what actually appears on the page is often awkward or overwrought: “Oh, my god! Goddamn! It’s shitshure ripping me apart . . . My insides are! Coming out!” Some of the particulars of the plot are dubious as well. From the outset, the socio-cultural mileiu in which the novel’s action occurs-- an artistic, bohemian, working class in rural Arkansas-- doesn’t ring true. In such a small community, it seems unlikely Cora would remain oblivious to Les’s affair with Sarah, and even less probable that Sarah would be unaware of Les’s wife or his other lovers. And even if Les’s suicide is an understandable conclusion to a life lived by the lie, the “three gunshots” necessary to complete the act leave us mystified.

Despite Gander’s struggles though, the clarity of artistic vision, formal innovation, and emotional honesty of
As a Friend are enviable. Few poets have produced innovative first novels that explore such varied emotional terrain in so few page, while at the same time reminding us to “approach each other and the world with as much vulnerability as we can possibly sustain.” In a recent essay, Gander makes his aesthetic project clear: “What I want is . . . to combine spiritual, intellectual, emotional and technical elements into a resistant musical form.” With this impressive, if imperfect, fiction debut, he’s come close.