New York Times Review – As A Friend by Forrest Gander

December 21st, 2008

winterson-650‘As soon as we make contact with the sacred, we’re face to face with death….’ (P106)

Love is part of what is sacred in life. Through love we get a chance to see past our own boundaries – not only into the life of another, but to the edge of life too; the last step off the seeming-solid into the weightlessness of death, its free-form.

As A Friend is a love story, but it’s also a death-story that tells how love and death are made of the same stuff; the same intensity of moment, the never forgotten detail. The moment of finding that you love someone is like the moment of knowing you will never see them again; its clarity is dazzling, and it alters everything – not just everything that will come after, but everything that has gone before.

‘ 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.’(P64)

As A Friend is a strange and beautiful book – not much more than a hundred pages it needs to be read slowly, to be uncovered, like a secret, to be discovered, like treasure.

The story is a small one – no ambitions to be the Great American Novel, or to chronicle our time, – it sets itself the task of seeing up close the lines of one man’s very particular life, and how those lines are walked and read, stumbled over and mis-read, by those nearby.

It’s the story of Les, poet and land surveyor, a man who measures the territory, both inside and outside, maps it for others, re-makes it for himself, says where the boundaries are, until, in the tragedy of the story, those boundaries are scuffed out.

Told simply, in four parts, the story opens with Les’s birth, his mother teenage and unwed, the baby boy adopted. The fierce beauty of the language begins at once, tracking the pain of giving birth, ‘the wet delta above the kidneys, knuckles wedged between the hot sheet and the flesh that heats it’ (P9).

Forrest Gander is a poet, and so he returns words as meaning, instead of blurring them as data. So much writing is just about conveying information, using words that are readily interchangeable, underpowering language so that it can’t reach the point of calibration; the right register of what we feel, and how it feels to feel. As A Friend is never sentimental, but it is all feeling, and that might be uncomfortable for readers who prefer language dwindled to defeat. This is language that is potent– that has a strong voice, so the reader has to sit down and listen to that voice, taking time, just as you would with a friend.

In Part Two, Les the baby is grown-up. He’s almost a caricature of a poet, brooding, gorgeous, magnetic to women and men alike, childlike in his enthusiasms, adult in his sexual passions, always in the plural. Les is married, but tells his wife Cora that he needs a home nearer his job for the working week, and that he shares it with Sarah, a lesbian. Sarah’s not lesbian; she’s his lover, who knows nothing about his wife, or that when Les has time, he takes other lovers too, fitting them in somewhere between the lines, letting them read the fiction that they are the only one.

The narrator of Part Two is Clay, a twenty-five year old wide-eyed guy who falls in love with Les’s sexy poet-self, and who works with him on the land-surveying jobs. Clay mimics Les’s mannerisms and copies his swagger, he knows Les is a liar and a cheat but he treats him like a Greek god, which may be the right thing to do because the gods always were liars and cheats.

Clay is half in love with Les’s weekday girlfriend, Sarah, too, and in the typical muddle of a passionate soul who can’t yet understand himself or his sexuality, Clay tries to fuse with both of them, finds he isn’t really with either of them, and forces the situation to its cruel end. It is so easy to tell a wife that her husband is having an affair, so difficult to foresee the consequences. And it is always easier to try to control the lives of others than to face the inadequacies and disappointments of our own.
Les kills himself.

Part Three is Sarah’s jottings, which in less sensitive hands than Gander’s would be random and maudlin. Here, the broken lines and scattered thoughts are a true expression of what it means to grieve. We don’t grieve in straight lines. She says ‘I’ve gone dark as a hedge.’ (P95) She says ‘Love solves nothing, but your love made me appear to myself.’(P72) She says ‘Still walking round the house in my socks as though I wouldn’t wake you.’(P96) Grief is circular. Gander somehow shows the shape of grief, using language like a compass to find the mid-point and then to trace the circle.

Part Four is Les himself – outtakes from a film interview. The man at the centre of the circle is both more and less than others have drawn him. Some of the things he says are wise, some are just stupid. So it is with anyone real, unlike the measured platitudes and balanced phrases that hallmark the increasing army of unreal people, who never want to risk a wrong word, and so speak only in clichés. There are no clichés to Les. He is a liar, but he doesn’t fake the truth where it counts, which is an odd thing to have to say about a fantasist and an adulterer, and Les is both.

Yet As A Friend has a remarkable way of challenging easy notions of truth and of right behaviour, and it does so without anger. There is such honesty in this book – its purpose, its language, its feeling. It is a way, as Les puts it – ‘To approach each other and the world with as much vulnerability as we can possibly sustain.’

Published: New York Times – December 19, 2008