Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Review: The False Friend by Myla Goldberg

In The Counterlife, Philip Roth describes one of his characters as indifferent “to the consequences of transgression.” For most of us, the most dangerous, and often most intriguing people we encounter in our lives are those who regard their world as some sort of rogue laboratory of human behavior in which they’re willing to try just about anything to see what will happen as a result. We’re fascinated by these people because they not only recognize the fragility of the fabric that sustains social equilibrium in our everyday lives, but see no reason not to tear it apart before it unravels on its own.
The rare human beings who approach transgression with perverse fascination and the power they exert over the reticent rest of us is part of what Myla Goldberg seems to explore in her entrancing new novel, The False Friend. But that’s just a guess; the book’s title, which refers, in part, to a linguistic term for apparent etymological cognates with divergent meanings, is itself a cipher. And at the heart of the book is a reckoning for the long-term impact of manipulativeness, bullying, and cruelty among adolescent girls, which is a subject I’ll admit to knowing very little about. The book is also about dissecting the fact, fiction, and selective memory of the disappearance of a child two decades after the fact, with a Mystic River-like take on the way the abduction predicated the future lives of the girls at the scene, and the women they became.

The False Friend tells the story of Celia Durst, a 32-year-old auditor for the city of Chicago, who comes to the realization that she’s repressed the memory of how her best friend, Djuna, disappeared as they were walking in a forbidden forest one afternoon 21 years earlier. Instead of being abducted by an adult in a brown car, Celia realizes, Djuna fell into a hole—most likely down a well: “One minute she was there, and the next the earth had swallowed her up.” Celia concludes that her 11-year-old self quickly and decisively fabricated the abduction story because she believed that Djuna, a merciless bully and as much her enemy as her friend, got what was coming to her. She flies home to upstate New York the next day to confess.

One of the first things we learn about Celia and Djuna is that their friendship was largely based on their ability to torment three less confident girls—“rodent[s] to their parliament of owls”—who want, with varying degrees of desperation, to enter their circle. But I don’t think The False Friend is in any way a retread of pop-culture musings on teenage girl cattiness like Mean Girls or Heathers; for one thing, those are movies about high school girls, and The False Friend is a novel about kids who inflicted their damage on one another in the sixth grade. (If anything, The False Friend is more like E.L. Konigsburg's Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth, but for grownups.) The teen/adolescent distinction is significant because Goldberg draws a clear line between the pre-sexual years and the ones that follow, characterizing the searing intensity of adolescent friendship as “the inarticulate ardor that presages sex.” Much as in her first novel, Bee Season, there’s an undercurrent of mysticism here, although not an explicit one. The False Friend portrays the command that a girl like Djuna can have over others for reasons that have little to do with popularity or looks, the magnetic sway of a fierceness that comes from not being afraid of the things everyone else is. It’s a power too compelling and too frightening to resist.

As Celia attempts, unsuccessfully, to convince her parents, her boyfriend, and—after tracking them down—the three former friends/disciples who were at the scene of Djuna’s disappearance of her newly reconstructed version of events, she begins to recognize the trajectories of all their lives and how they have radiated from their acquaintance with Djuna and the circumstances of her disappearance. Celia discovers in her parents’ rigid reluctance to cross carefully defined boundaries of conversational propriety why she found Djuna’s outspoken fearlessness so compelling. What’s more, she connects her stagnant relationship with her boyfriend, Huck, to her inability to reconcile the cruelty of her Djuna-era self with the more considerate self she’s constructed in the 20-year aftermath of what remains the most intimate relationship of her life: “’We will never be closer to anyone than we are to each other right now,’ Djuna vowed, to which Celia had agreed with all the certainty eleven years of life could provide. Twenty-one years later, she realized it was still true.”

There’s something about this book that just makes me want to quote it endlessly; it’s not just that it teems with exquisite turns of phrase, but that each one has the dual purpose of piercing perceptiveness and absolute cogency to the heart of the story and the characters. And a lot of those lines are damn funny too. Of course, there are other writers who do this as well as Goldberg (the first name she invokes in her acknowledgments, Nathan Englander, is certainly in her league, although, the title track of For the Relief of Unbearable Urges notwithstanding, he’s not as funny). But Goldberg’s words are so enveloping that to read her books is to inhabit a universe all her own. (A point perhaps best underscored by the fascinating marginalia in her second novel, Wickett’s Remedy, which simultaneously break the spell of narrative flow and effectively fill out the world, as if there’s the narrative and the rest of the Wickett’s world, and nothing else exists.)

In a sense, The False Friend is the anti-coming-of-age novel. Far from a saga of innocence lost, the book presents the arc of maturation as a makeshift corrective, something more like placing a band-aid of decency over the self-absorbed savagery of childhood. And though at first it seems to be venturing into the “did she jump or was she pushed” banality of, say, A Separate Peace, the story Goldberg ends up telling is false friend (in the etymological sense) to any of its apparent literary cognates.

But what The False Friend does have in common with the best and truest books about childhood is the way it captures the feeling of standing on the precipice of a new, adult world that’s deliciously terrifying, that first moment when games stop being just games and danger becomes real. There’s a scene in The False Friend that describes a game that Celia and Djuna play, hiding behind a freezer-sized electrical box. It’s a sacred place to the two of them because they believe they’re the only people who have ever gotten close enough to the box to hear its foreboding hum. Hiding behind it with whatever they’ve just stolen from their parents, “They’d taken their first steps into the hugeness of the universe beyond, and found each other … the moment of union, the strongest alliance she’d experienced outside the inherited bonds of family, and the most powerful, vulnerable thing she knew.”

When I was 8 years old, a boy in my hometown, friend of a friend, was killed by electrocution while playing hide and seek in an electrical box much like the one Goldberg describes. His neighbor and best friend, the kid I knew, was badly burned as well. Who were those kids to each other, and what did that box mean to them before it killed one of them? What kind of adults did the kids who survived that game become and how much of it was just momentum from that life-changing game? I suppose I’ll never know, but I’m sure there’s more to the story than I ever thought to ask, or had any right to know either.

The False Friend is about all of that, and at the same time is a story of characters so rich in idiosyncracies that it's not really about anything I might project upon it. But I have no doubt that The False Friend will retain its hold on me for quite some time, which I suppose is no surprise, coming from a writer whose work is as consistently, compulsively affecting as Myla Goldberg’s.

Pre-order The False Friend from Powell's Books