A FALSE FRIEND by Myla Goldberg

I try to read different styles of fiction and non-fiction to learn something from style, the writing and the author’s presentation. But I am impatient because there is much to read. If I cannot detect a story and structure inside a book with good writing, I lose interest quickly.

I don’t expect every book to have a chronological narrative. But if a writer begins with “bit,” and she goes onto “bot,” and next to “but,” followed by “bat” and ending up with “bet,” the story, writing and telling need distinction: Voice(s), choice of words, style of writing, immediacy of sentences, a comprehensible of structure guiding the reader at the rudder to make way through the “B-a-e-i-o-u-t.”

All that failed me in A False Friend by Myla Goldberg, and I did not sense a style or a structure otherwise presented to the reader. The story is told by Celia, as a pre-pubscient girl and when in the first chapter Celia’s best friend Djuna disappears in the forest (down a hole like Aiice), Celia has reached puberty. I note the Celia’s voice, words and speech are the same despite aging. These ages and the on-coming womanhood are important in youth because there are bunches and gobs of currents and circuits fed by hormones hitting girls.

Although Celia and Djuna interact with each other, they seem unaware of puberty. Their parents are unaware. Nobody else knows anything. The reader has no guidance except experience, although the book is presumably written for adults. The activities of the girls at nine years seems the same at 13 years.

Should the advent of puberty show up on page 180 as an involved plot point or a plot twist, when the actions between the two girls happened on page 10? I don’t know if that happens because the book lost me as a reader at Chapter 8. One book cover squib praising the novel mentions it is about “girl bullying.” If the author does not have a handle on the perpetrator and the victim, but is writing generically about morals, ethics, behaviors and reason, the writing is not a novel but a sociology. 

Of course with a novel, a story can be presented and the reader can learn from the characters and detect how incidents, however small, may get out of hand and result in bullying. Of perhaps the violence is mean and intentional. What sort of writing tries to make a point in   A FALSE FRIEND:

Chapter 3, page 39-40: “For years Celia had figured she would live alone: a small apartment in Ukrainian Village or Wicker Place shared on alternative weekends with a boyfriend who would have his shelf of the medicine cabinet, his bureau drawer. Their lives with sporadically intersect from Friday to Sunday, phone calls leaving the time in between. She had been perplexed by people who did it differently, had theorized that they were somehow less busy. In high school and college she simply had not had time to meet people. There were marches to organize and fund-raisers to plan, poems to read and meetings to attend. Her chronic overcommitment and loneliness had felt inherent, conditions like diabetes or color blindness that demanded their own concessions.”

In this paragraph Celia recollects the idea of living alone. Note there is no development of that idea from the standpoint of living alone, its glories or deficits. Nor is there development of Celia’s character. There are erratic and errant thoughts about Celia’s busy lifestyle unrelated to living alone: Irregular live-in boyfriends. Why was that desirable? No answer. How other people lived together, a thought completely unrelated to Celia. Celia remembers her earlier years when living with anyone seemed unnecessary: For purposes of this story it is immaterial and off point. But is it nonsensical that a young woman involved in politics, social issues and fund-raisers would not make friends and would have no acquaintances from those activities. What’s a reader to think?

Boyfriend-husband Huck had nights with the boys when Celia was out of town. (45) Does this have much to do with Djuna’s disappearance and the reaction of Celia’s hometown? Nothing. It tells little about Celia, even if the point of the novel appears to be the reaction to Djuna’s disappearance, today rather than 25-30 years before. The story is silent about the psychology of the adult Celia wanting to tell what happened to Djune. Celia shows up at her parents’ home in chapter 5 and tells her parents when Djuna disappeared: I lied. Her parents excuse her – her mother, who works at a high school says, you were just a child (13 years). You were confused.

The mother’s character is incredible. She works in a high school. She ought to know kids lie, including her own daughter. The mother is oblivious. Why does Celia come home and announce the lie? No one asks that. Where does this get anyone? Djune and Celia were friends who had sharp fights. Just before Djune disappeared, a fight had occurred.

An example from history. Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr were friends who frequently socialized with one another. They also enraged one another. In July 1804 they fought a duel. Burr killed Hamilton. When Aaron Burr returned to New York City, its citizens heard Burr walk around trying to solicit conversation: I fought a duel with Alexander Hamilton, my best friend, and I killed him. History records no one stuck around to hear the full psychological release.

It is either the writing – the mix of bat, bet, bit, bot, but – or it is not presented in the story. I have no sense of remorse, guilt, regret or another other weight on Celia that compels her to come clean in Chapter 5. I would expect that set up in the first four chapters. It’s either bad reading comprehension, or there was nothing in the first four chapters to comprehend.

I lost track of any structure or order in the presentation of story, identifying a concept and generally following it. Words lengthened into sentences and ended nonsensically, Page 49:

“As Huck stood over Celia in the half-light cast by the approaching dusk, he had struggled to imagine a malady dire enough to send her home from work. She’d been know to barricade herself inside her private office with herbal tea, ibuprofen and zinc lozenges to avoid taking a sick day. Huck had considered the possibility that nursing her through some awful affliction would force an end to his late mornings, and perhaps return him to the sort of person who ministered to the slow-draining sink in the bathroom, the loose bedroom-door handle, or their beloved creaking couch. He would restore Celia to wellness, and himself to a person who did all these stuff he was supposed to do, and by the following week they’d both be their normal selves again.     But Celia hadn’t been sick.They’d sat on the couch…”

The reader is happy Celia isn’t sick, but Huck’s thoughts and impressions are overblown. He goes through the litany of her office sick routine, and next remembers he’s supposed to do all the handy work around the house. That’s his job. BUT Celia isn’t sick, and Huck’s ruminations are filler, extra, padding, stuffing or surplus. A reader is a sucker to plow through the routine/Huck’s thoughts, yet no one knows it is completely unnecessary until the next paragraph. The author could get away with it but didn’t write it so: Huck stands over Celia worried she might be sick. Does he wake or disturb her to get her reaction, and to have an emotional release himself? NO. Celia is just being a nine year old girl: She’ll sit on the couch with him.

When the reader’s imagination outruns the author’s, the book is in trouble. Page 53-54, Chapter 5: 

“Celia braved the hallway in her nightshirt. As children, she and Jeremy had been permitted downstairs in pajamas, but their parents only ever left the bedroom fully clothed. At some point Celia had adopted this habit, until Huck – early on in their courtship, the first demand of her he ever made – refused to serve post-coital pancakes to a woman wearing anything more than a bathrobe. The stairway carpet on the soles of Celia’s feet felt like Christmas morning, circa 1981. In the kitchen, she found a note beside a fresh half pot of coffee – Good Morning! Call me when you wake up. Love, Mom…”

Hank and Celia are married. Making pancakes is after-play for Huck, and Celia’s reaction? Celia! Now that you’ve brought it up how was sex with Huck? What sort of condiment did you put on the pancakes – honey, syrup, preserves, a tart marmalade, sour cream or sauerkraut? This passage implied Celia’s parents did not have sex for decades. It also implies Celia didn’t like sex and doesn’t want to talk about it or about anything else. 

I also know the next sentence of the paragraph is NOT, “The stairway carpet on the soles of Celia’s feet felt like Christmas morning,…”
Finally, the reader gets the impression that something is really not right with Celia – she’s mentally ill, or is a complete whack-job or too much of a Daddy’s little girl, or Mommy’s precious friend. She’s completely useless as a human being. Why else would the author leave the reader hanging with Celia thinking about sex with Huck and five lines later a note from Mom?

Heinrich Boell learned to write in part by rewriting published books. A False Friend may provide that type of opportunity to students learning to write. It is easy to be at sea with this book, reading and casting about for any safe harbor, literary pier or an anchorage to steady the boat. An author telling a story must appear to have control, write efficiently and effectively using few words. That is not the experience here. Why suffer through an author’s obvious shortcomings? There are other books to read.




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