Michiko Kakutani, as anyone who is a ravenous fan of Sex and the City knows, is a kickass critic at The New York Times.
And if you read The New York Times Book Review, you know that Ms. Kakutani’s reviews are the sharpest, most intense reviews you can possibly read.
She’s won a Pulitzer Prize for her work. Of course, I’ve never met her, but I sure would like to one day. I admire her and fear her in equal measure, which means I would probably not hold up well in her presence. I get tongue-tied pretty easily when faced with literary gods.
When I saw that Michiko Kakutani wrote the review for Emily Gould’s debut novel, Friendship, I got that giddy rush of ohmygod, ohmygod, must-read-this-right-now. It’s the way I imagine some girls felt in high school, when the captain of the football team strode down the hall to visit his girlfriend. I never understood social capital in high school, and had only the vaguest idea of how image ruled everything.
But what happens between the lines of The New York Times Book Review–well, this is a world I plug into. This is the social capital I understand. I might never write a book that is reviewed in The Times, I might never be asked to write a review for their pages, and I might never be able to meet Dwight Garner, who is one of my all-time heroes.
But when I read the Book Review, I always know I am one of those girls in the hallway, with her eyes on the football team captain. The hottest man ever born. I’m in awe of him, he’s so beautiful and perfect, so lovely and fair, and I make sure I see him each day, because my world doesn’t feel right if I go a day without glimpsing him. I can glance at him once, and know how he’s feeling, because I watch him so closely at times.
This is my relationship with the Book Review. He doesn’t know I exist, but I know I exist, and I can’t ever lose hope that one day, one day far in the future, I will do something that makes him take notice. He’ll be sauntering along on his way to his cute girlfriend’s locker, and she’ll be flipping her hair and snapping her gum, and that’s when he’ll happen to look over and see the book in my hands. He’ll read the title. He will see me.
I can’t even express how much this idea terrifies me. Because we often crave things in life that are horrible experiences. So it goes with me and The Times.
I’ve already mentioned I’m rooting for Emily Gould. As far as gum-snapping girlfriends go, I want her to do well. But with the football team captain–well, one never knows. His tastes are so fickle, and sometimes so flat-out wrong, that no one can guess how a courtship will go.
For me, reading the Book Review is an adrenaline rush of gossip and sex and image and thrill. It’s everything high school never was, and never could be for me, because hallways are not ruled by words. Hallways are ruled by perception, which is ruled by money and reputation, and those things are factors when it comes to the Book Review, but they aren’t the chief forms of respect. The poet reigns supreme at the Book Review. The philosopher. The free thinker. The one who dares to walk off a cliff, and find a bridge made of air. Those are the girls this boy likes the most, the ones he buys roses for, and takes for a spin in his car.
And I so want to earn one of those red roses one day. And a ride in that car.
He drives a black BMW, of course.
Although sometimes he prefers his red Ferrari:
and other times, he goes for a cruise in his dark blue Lamborghini:
because this is a boy who knows how to get what he wants. And he doesn’t want the girl next door. If you want to turn his head, you better be something new, something powerful, something he’d be honored to take for a spin in one of his cars.
And if he really likes you, he’ll be back. He’ll keep calling. He’ll give you attention even when you’re not writing books, or poems, or short stories. He might have dozens and dozens of girlfriends, but once you’ve gone for a cruise, he doesn’t forget you exist. He might be a stud, and he might rule the halls, but he likes to be swept off his feet. And love is love, as far as he is concerned. He might not be nice to you, once he’s got his teeth in, but that’s the price you pay for a date. He’s a dangerous boy with the most beautiful cars. And what can I say? He just does it for me.
In Ms. Kakutani’s review of Friendship, titled “A Lucy and Ethel for an Age after Blogs,” she references the “very long, often very irritating” cover article Emily Gould wrote for The New York Times Magazine in 2008, and things didn’t look good for Ms. Gould. This was not the happiest way to begin a book review.
But when Ms. Kakutani introduces Friendship as an “awkward but often sharply observed first novel,” I knew Ms. Gould had just won some high praise, and that her first novel had received, not a scathing review, but a mixed review from the sharpest critic at The Times.
A mixed review is like Ms. Kakutani saying, “This is a good book, but it’s not groundbreaking.” Emphasis on the word good in that sentence. Because Ms. Kakutani is known for her scathing reviews, so if she found things to praise in a book, then the author has accomplished a great deal in the work. Praise from Ms. Kakutani is a red rose and a wink, and maybe a short trip to the Dairy Queen for a sundae.
I bet Ms. Gould probably cringed though, when she read these two lines in Ms. Kakutani’s review:
“Friendship is certainly more sophisticated and searching than CBS’s cartoonlike 2 Broke Girls. But it doesn’t have the raw, original voice that Lena Dunham brings to HBO’s Girls, a complex series with a funny, visceral sense of the real.”
Why would that make her cringe? Because Ms. Gould is always being compared to Lena Dunham, and that has to suck. Emily Gould was famous before Lena Dunham, but Ms. Dunham never fell out of favor, never wrote a blog confessional that Ms. Kakutani would describe as “irritating.” Lena Dunham is an empress at The New York Times Book Review, the hottie who is always going for long rides in those cars. And not just to Dairy Queen, either. She’s driven all over town.
Not that I begrudge Lena Dunham those sexy trips in those cars. I may not watch Girls, but I did watch the pilot, and I know exactly what Ms. Kakutani is talking about when she describes the show as having “a funny, visceral sense of the real.”
And I’ve already mentioned how I feel like a lobotomized elephant for the simple fact that I am not watching Girls. I’m definitely out of the loop, as far as tapping this root of pop culture goes. But there are so many other girlfriends I watch the Book Review court, and not all of them thrill me the same way. I was a Sex and the City fanatic, so it’s hard for me to be obsessed with a show that covers similar territory, but doesn’t gloss over reality with expensive shoes and nice hair and cute clothes.
The truth is, I miss Carrie Bradshaw, who was so clueless and stupid and adorable and wonderful, and absolutely the greatest fashionista to ever rock Manolo Blahniks.
Carrie Bradshaw is not in Girls, and that makes me miss her acutely, and I am a wuss.
I also don’t feel that inspired to read Friendship, mostly because it is covering Girls territory, and Sex and the City ground, therefore triggering my wussitude tendencies. As Ms. Kakutani writes near the end of her review, “Ms. Gould does a credible job of evoking her two self-absorbed heroines’ daily existence, hoping that noncommittal boyfriends might turn into more perfect mates, hoping that terrible temp jobs are really temporary pit stops on the way to some sort of real vocation.”
I’m glad that Ms. Gould won some praise from the toughest critic at The Times, and I wish her well in reinventing herself as a novelist. It’s my chosen vocation, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
And maybe Ms. Gould’s sophomore title will earn her a trip to a five-star in that dark blue Lamborghini. Because getting a sundae at Dairy Queen is no small feat.