It’s rare to find fiction, now, that looks at ideas of male friendship. Back in the Renaissance, it was all the rage. Think through – for example – Shakespeare’s catalogue of comedies and see how frequently it comes up as a theme, but think more recently and you get, what? Women In Love? But not much later. Male friendships are probably most stereotypically evoked in fiction by someone like Bret Easton Ellis, where everyone occasionally considered a friend is ALWAYS considered a rival, in every possible way. James Bond has “friends”, y’know, but they’re also professional colleagues and they usually end up maimed and/or dead. Men are islands, like, as we all know. The relationships between men that are more complicated, more nuanced and more emotional than merely rivalry/villainy or a shared purpose rarely appear in print, other than in homosexual texts. When you think about great literature containing explorations of female friendship you get towering greats of the novel form, rightful classics from the nineteenth century through to the sublime Neopolitan series by Elena Ferrante (note to self: pick up a copy of the third volume). There is no shortage of long term friendship (and all the complexities of this) in fiction about and by women,but perhaps men (to generalise) see it as beneath them? Men are interested only in themselves, or at best other people who they are fucking or fucking over. Friendship is a mutual thing, with give and take and pros and cons. Status changes due to health and money and other factors, but within a friendship something central, something unquantifiable, holds people together, but rarely is the male experience of this directly explored in fiction.
The Faithful Couple by A.D. Miller seeks to redress this, being a novel all about Adam and Neil, two men from London who cross paths as they both seek to “find themselves” in California in 1993. The men become friends in San Diego and travel northwards together, drinking, dancing and hitting on girls. And yes, I use the word “girls” on purpose, because this opening section of the novel ends after the young men compete for the affections of a female who Neil successfully seduces. Shortly before the sex happened, Adam discovered that she was fifteen, but did not tell his new friend and allowed him to one-up their game of one-up-manship to the level of statutory rape. This event – especially Adam’s age-related knowledge – taints their relationship over the following two decades of the novel, keeping them apart and linking them together. Adam feels a lot of guilt, mainly because both of them were competitively seeking the same laddish goal.
After this misadventure the novel travels forwards, every chapter focused on a few months, taken a few years apart. We see relationships fail and grow, professional ventures succeed and fall apart, parents die, children be born and the world change.A highlight is Miller’s pleasing evocation of life’s growing centrality of technology.
Adam and Neil are close, they help each other out with money when needed, and as power changes due to professional development/stagnation, power shifts. Adam – who starts off as the rich boy, the posh boy, the success, loses momentum and becomes satisfied with a mid level job, a long commute and a significant family life. Neil has a long term relationship that collapses (partly due to the his partner’s incomprehension of his relationship with Adam) and then a few years later a woman he is seeing falls pregnant soon after they met, and when the novel ends he is happy in this familial relationship. In fact, they both end happily, toddling into middle age but still with nagging guilt about the teenager sex thing. There is a tension that I feared would end with a disproportionate international man hunt and paedophile case, but thankfully doesn’t – the very, very middle class lives of the two men are played realistically. Realistically for a certain perspective, though, a certain class. These are successful people, connected people, the kind of white, hetero, middle class people who shortish, literary, books have been being written about for centuries.
The Faithful Couple is engaging and tense and successfully structured in a non-normative way, well, also not wholly original, there’s a press quotation [bizarrely] included that reads “This could be the One Day of male friendship”, which was CLEARLY (one hopes) meant as a bitchy slur. Actually, thinking about it, I don’t think it was. I think The Faithful Couple is merely aimed at a readerly demographic I rarely fall into. This is populist literary fiction. This is a book with an almost entirely white cast without any shame, where no one is gay, no one is transgender and women are, largely, things for men to discuss or compete over. This is a deeply conservative book, and gives me that occasional painful reminder that most people who read a lot are Brexiteer dickheads.
It’s a book about wealthy white men. FUCK OFF is this relevant to now. FOR FUCK’S SAKE, this is why all the literary prizes are getting won by independent publishers, because the big hitters only bother putting things out they know will get snapped up by mid-level office drones with reading glasses and viagra prescriptions. This is the kind of book that the kind of characters in this book read on their commute to parts of London that don’t have independent coffee shops or bars run by depressed people with substance abuse issues (like ALL good bars should be). God, the more I think about it, the angrier I am. This is a book for Daily Mail readers to get gentle erections from on flights to the Costa del Sol.
It’s a solid read, y’know, it’s well put together, the characters are rounded and believable, but they’re characters whose lives have been told in fiction ten fucking THOUSAND times before. It is a FINE novel, middlebrow, but not original enough to change literature and not remotely engaged with any real societal issues. This is good fiction, y’know, you can’t critique its execution. But you can critique its existence. Books should do something new, fiction should aspire to ART. That’s my opinion, anyway.
I enjoyed The Faithful Couple, because it’s a solid read. But as soon as I started to think about it, I felt disgusted that I’d even bothered looking at it.
DISCLAIMER: I was given a copy of this by a friend who works for the publishing house, whose corporate twitter account I imagine will NOT be tweeting a link to this review.