I started this review twice, then gave up and left it for a few days. It’s rare that I need to do this, but Emily Gould’s And the Heart Says Whatever so upset me that I needed to stop and think. What exactly about this book made me want to set it aflame?
It wasn’t Amy Sohn’s blurb, calling Gould’s book a “limpid, poetic elegy to New York… gorgeously rendered.” The book is none of those things. It’s a memoir, not an elegy. Alas here, at least, Gould is a lousy writer. More on this later.
Nor was it Curtis Sittenfeld’s blurb, which compares Gould’s essay collection to Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. This is like comparing The Spice Girls to Maria Callas, or Bristol Palin to Chelsea Clinton. Whatever.
I finally figured out that what really bothers me about this book is this: Emily Gould is mean.
I am Jewish, and grew up in an affluent Jewish suburb. I knew a lot of girls like Emily Gould. We called them Jewish American Princesses, girls who passed notes in class and made cruel fun of selected peers. Gould admits to being this sort of girl, who grew up to get a job a Gawker.com:
“Being mean and quick came easily to me, and if I thought about it, I could imagine that everything I’d done up to that point had been my training for this job… But I was also reminded—as I sat there during my audition (for the Gawker position)... of my high-school era proclivity for frantic, constant note-passing. I had even maintained a notebook solely for the purpose of writing nasty little observations about my teachers and classmates…”
Prior to reading And the Heart Says Whatever, I assumed the nasty princesses in deck shoes and Gloria Vanderbilt jeans matured and got knocked around by life like the rest of us, hopefully outgrowing some of their worst tendencies. I was wrong.
Now, I understand that neither Gawker nor Gould are pitching this book to a 42-year old, West Coast flaming liberal with hippie leanings like myself. Gould’s ideal reader is female, 18-34, single, longs to live in New York or is already starving there, and has some idea of herself as special. If that’s you, you might like this book.
The rest of us look at a book like this and wonder why it got published while writers like Mary Clearman Blew and Kent Haruf are steadily creating memorable, beautiful books in relative anonymity. We wonder why Siri Hustvedt’s fiction isn’t met with rapture. Or, as the metal band Lamb of God said of Britney Spears in the great Sam Dunn Documentary Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey, Gould has nothing to say.
OK, enough railing from me. I’ll concede the book is brutally honest—both intentionally and not.
Gould is relentless, remorseless, as she recounts bad behaviors and questionable decisions. There is the deflowering of a 14-year-old classmate (Gould was 17 at the time), cheating on her longtime boyfriend, a fair amount of casual sex, i.e., “hooking up”, and lots of pot and booze. There is her attitude while performing these acts, and her attitude while writing of them afterward. While incredibly self-aware and the first to count her flaws, Gould often seems at a remove—she recognized her actions were hurtful even as she performed them, but is quick to write she’d she’d do it the same way again.
Then there’s the TMI issue…Too Much Information. How much is too much? In these days of Facebook and blogging, it’s nearly impossible to say. All we can do is thoughtfully set our own limits.
Here is Gould on the aforementioned 14-year-old, whom she spotted while practicing with the swim team, “I could see the outline of his dick clearly from twenty-five meters away and it was as thick as my wrist.” Unabashed female sexuality is to be applauded, but Gould is talking about seducing africkin’ 14-year-old.
What are we to make of her experience at Kenyon College, which included a boyfriend who tried to bang her skull into the sidewalk after he read her journal, conveniently left open to the page detailing an infidelity? What of her cheating on longtime boyfriend Joseph, whom she immediately informed? Who would want to report such behaviors to the world? Why?
All of this is housed in an update on the classic “girl comes to New York City with secret knowledge of her true exceptionality, which she fervently hopes will be discovered” trope. Interestingly, in Gould’s case, that sense of being extraordinary… lacked focus. Where most young women want to be artists, dancers, designers, or God help us, writers, Gould writes:
“I had come to New York City with this idea that I was somehow extraordinary. The important part wasn’t ‘extraordinary’, it was ‘somehow’—I wasn’t quite sure what kind of renown it was, exactly, that I was destined for. I just knew that I was really good at something or that I could be, if I could just figure out what.” (italics author’s).
Before locating her renown, Gould does a lot of waitressing, much of it in bars.Her descriptions of working in these places is vivid: drunken men making passes, sussing out who’s paying the tab, expertly flirting, avoiding overly interested managers, competition with colleagues.She enrolls at the New School, which doesn’t have majors but “concentrations”.
After bailing out of drama and studio art at Kenyon, Gould concentrates on writing at the New School. She learned little in these courses, workshops where the teachers were either vaguely enthusiastic or mute. When she gets a job as an editorial assistant, her sense of specialness finds a niche. From there it’s to Gawker.com and publication.
There are numerous vignettes highlighting what it means to be young in New York City now. Gould never once refers to a wristwatch: if she needs to know the time, she checks her phone. She goes to bars that serve complicated, expensive drinks. She lives in Brooklyn, home, depending on your viewpoint, of hipster heaven or hell, where she does her share of nightclubbing, partying, and getting tattooed. She describes the horrors of apartment living, including insane rents, roommate woes, and the inevitable roaches.
There is even a bout with a dog, the inaccurately named Hopey, whom Gould is incapable of liking, much less loving, and eventually returns to the breeder. All of this is rendered in language I can only think is intentional both on Gould’s part and her editor’s. Her speech pattens are those of thousands of functional illiterates: in lieu of adjectives and nouns, we get “like” and “thing”.
All of the following language and punctuation is taken directly from the text.
“Usually I tell people I dropped out of Kenyon, but that is an oversimplification slash total lie.”
“I had been going to this garden a lot that summer to sit and watch the fish swimming around the koi pond.”
“The closest he had ever come to flirting with me was this random languid moment one night…”
“I had been drinking slowly but steadily over the course of the evening and had gotten to that unfun plateau of drunkenness that is indistinguishable from sobriety in all its particulars…”
For the record, “unfun” is not a word. Those of you nurturing dreams of Going To New York And Becoming Writers should not take the above as examples of fine sentence structure (much less “limpid”, “poetic”, or worthy of a book deal).
If you feel at all inclined to follow Gould’s uh, flow get thee to an independent bookshop, quick! Purchase a copy of Strunk and White. While you’re at it, buy a thesaurus. Yes, an actual book. Your online thesaurus sucks. You won’t go wrong with Roget’s. Use nouns and adjectives. Be succinct. Hew to existing words: the English language is full of them.
Gould is not a complete monster; her breakup with longtime boyfriend Joseph is clearly a source of great pain. She suffers from anxiety attacks severe enough to merit the taking of Ativan, a strong anti-anxiety medication. She even realizes how much her actions have hurt her boyfriends, particularly Joseph. She leaves Gawker after the job’s inherent nastiness (not to mention the grueling hours necessary to maintain a constant stream of posts) wear on her… morality.
Still this a woman who writes—more than once— that she would do nothing differently. Charitably, I could call this sad—a person with enough moral sense to leave Gawker has enough moral sense to become an adult. Part of being an adult is learning to keep your mouth shut, at least some of the time, and to think before you fuck. For no heart should be so numbed that it can only say, “Whatever”.