I often feel hesitant to read stories about writers writing because it can feel like the biggest cliché for a novel to be about the act of writing a novel. Of course, as someone who mostly lives through fiction I will gladly overlook what might be an eyerolling self-referential act for the pleasure of being in close company of another book nerd. And this novel goes in depth discussing the creative endeavour, our relationship to reading and dozens of fascinating quotes and references to writers such as Nabokov, Svetlana Alexievich, J.M. Coetzee and the now more obscure J.R. Ackerley. It’s also a commentary on our society’s evolving relationship to literature and the challenges of teaching creative writing in the era of political correctness. But I was caught off guard by how emotionally moved I was by “The Friend” by the time I came to the end of it.
The plot revolves around an unnamed female writer whose lifelong friend and mentor (who was also a writer and creative writing teacher) commits suicide. He leaves her his dog, an enormous Great Dane named Apollo. It’s a challenge for her to keep the pet because she lives in a tiny rent-controlled NYC apartment which doesn’t allow dogs. But she refuses to part with Apollo because he serves as both a connection to her lost friend and a source of emotional support that she increasingly hurries home to spend time with. Although you only get fragmentary glimpses of the narrator’s life and experiences her story builds to form a picture of an isolated individual struggling with issues surrounding mortality, loneliness and self-expression. But she also makes many wry and humorous observations about human nature and social behaviour. All this cumulative detail builds to form an understanding of her state of being while making poignant reflections on the human condition.
Her position in relation to her friend who committed suicide is also unique. He was married three times. Although the narrator is not one of his widows they shared an uncommonly close relationship and his actual widows treat her with a mixture of friendship, contempt and rivalry. This is shown humorously but I like how it also highlights that there are many relationships in our lives which don’t fall into neat categories of either family or romantic partnership. Yet, when it comes to something as significant as death, our relationship to that person can be devalued because there wasn’t a social label to certify its significance.
There’s also a fascinating chapter which is like a creative writing exercise she might assign to her students. In it she imagines an encounter between a woman and man who aren’t dissimilar to herself and her friend. Their discussion strays into a description of a novel the woman is writing about her fictional account of the man committing suicide. It’s a clever way of juggling with what’s true and what’s fiction. This emphasizes her point: “It is curious how the act of writing leads to confession. Not that it doesn’t also lead to lying your head off.” But it’s no less meaningful when the narrator finally succeeds in keeping the dog and develops an abiding connection with him. What’s undeniably true is the feeling of intimacy that the narrator craves to cling to even after losing her closest friend.