There’s a kind of novel that usually I avoid. You know the kind I mean—a miasmic dunking in the minutiae of neurotic characters who do very little out of the ordinary, suffer, come together, break apart, and end up in an ambiguous condition wherein presumably some sort of enlightenment has been achieved. Turgid not because the writing of such tomes is necessarily bad but, really, it’s just like real life only artistically rendered, and who wants to spend four or five hundred pages with people and their problems that in most respects seem just like ours?
For similar reasons we do not seek to know everyone we could, because there are people we really would rather not.
But then there are people we want to know, people we do know, people who are necessary and wonderful to our lives, people who have impacted us in ways that have made us who we are. No, we didn’t choose them, it doesn’t work that way, but we can’t deny their significance after the connection and the absorption and the time spent loving and worrying and hating and assessing and comparing and competing and being with.
Which is also the reason for novels like those described above and also the reason we don’t want to read them all or even most of them, and would find the effort unrewarding if we tried. Because they don’t all matter to us. They may matter to someone, but not to us. Not now, maybe not ever.
Except the ones that do.
Meg Woltizer’s The Interestings is, as it turns out, one that mattered to me.
The thing is, like the choices we seem to make in friendships, the reasons why don’t lend themselves well to explication. You meet, you chat, you spend time, you become friends or lovers or, sometimes, enemies, and the chemistry involved in the passions that come about is a dynamic thing, a flux that mutates almost too quickly to recognize at any given moment. So you’re reduced, then, to describing how you met, what you said, where you went, who you have in common, and things that happened.
It’s no wonder that so many novels like this become finely-written lists. The catalogue of event (or nonevent) should tell something about why these people, these stories are important. To be be fair, they do. Because we find recognition in event, resonance in detail, reification in experience. Unfortunately, it’s such an individual thing that what for one reader is revelatory for another is a prolonged yawn.
The thing that sets some of these novels apart is always the quality and precision of the significant observation. The writer says, obliquely, “did you see this? did you notice how that happened?” and in the evocation of interaction gets inside and behind our desire for novelty and shows us how just being with people contains more novelty than we can manage.
This is not a simple thing. This is finding the universal in brunch, the sublime in moving into an apartment, the profound in a white lie. Usually, all those things are only and ever what they appear to be, at least for other people. In the hands of a master observer, however, they can be everything.
Once that level of access is achieved and established, imagine how powerful become the really big events of a life.
Which brings me to the novel at hand, a novel of the sort that ordinarily would hold no interest. It begins with the coming together of a group of people at a summer camp for the arts in the mid 1970s who continue on as lifelong friends. They are precocious, talented, some would say gifted, and self-consciously style themselves as The Interestings. They expect, even as they mug and mock themselves about it, Great Things for themselves. One is a cartoonist-cum-animator who actually does achieve material (and even moral) greatness, but he is dogged by a sense of failing to be the kind of person he wants to be. The rest, in their various ways, succeed at different things or fail and stop trying. One explosively ruins the life that might have been lived, another follows a sidetrack for almost too long, the others are blocked or betrayed by life, and one never seems to get off first base and yet becomes the anchor for the others in ways she wholly fails to appreciate for decades.
Envy is almost a character itself. And regret.
But also great love and generosity and all the reassessments associated with very full lives, even when those lives are not what we wanted or are simply underappreciated.
Wolitzer follows them through their various trajectories, weaving them in and out and around each other as they live through the age of Reagan and AIDS and into 9/11 and the world that made, and even when global events intrude upon the narrative she keeps it personal. Her observations of the calamities, large and small, and joys that comprise life are laser-sharp and true in the way good art should be. And although these people are not anyone we know, the effect is that we do know them, because they are just like us.
Here’s the curious part. As I said at the beginning, this is the sort of novel that would ordinarily bore me, because nothing much happens in it. These people bounce off each other, lie to each other, hug each other, fuck each other, live with, by, and through each other, and it is just life, and I have my own, thank you very much, and I know these things, have lived these things. Yet I found myself compelled to keep reading and responding in surprising ways and in the end finding an appreciation even for what I thought I already knew for which I am grateful.
Most of the rest of the novels like this, which I will likely never read, and those few before now which I have read, are not this book—just as all the people I am not friends with are not likely to ever be my friend. Most of them, fine people though they may be, are not here and do not speak to me.
This book spoke to me.
Perhaps because what Wolitzer is examining here is exactly that—speaking. Or, more generally, friendship. What makes it visceral is how she portrays the continual and constant assessment people indulge regarding this most nebulous and yet absolutely necessary human practice, that of taking inside and giving of ourselves the promises and pleasures of being a friend. As one character explains, they could have been anyone, it was chance that threw them together in that camp, and if chance had sent them to another camp then it would have been a completely different set of people for whom all this would have been important. But the fact is, it was this camp and these people, and you live with what’s in front of you. Because it doesn’t matter so much what chance has handed you but what you then do with it, and when it comes to friendship what matters is what happened before you consciously reassess how you met. Wolitzer understands this with granular intensity and gives portraits of friendships that work.
Ancillary issues permeate the book, as in life, and politics, economics, sex, art, illness all appear to complicate, distract, and force decisions upon the players. As a demonstration of answering the question “What do you do with what you have?” the novel is honest and unflinching. The events that contour the narrative are often unexpected and the choices made are organic to the portraits of complicated, compelling people.
So while I may well continue to define a certain kind of novel as a type that I don’t care for, I find that I can do so without feeling either shortchanged or hypocritical. I don’t have to like them all or even most of them. I found the one, by chance, that I do like.
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