New York Review Books, $14.95 (paper)
It is a common fantasy among writers that our lives are as compelling as our art. We feel more intensely than other people, and we love more passionately. Dinner parties aspire to literary salons; road trips are marked by witty repartee and philosophical rigor. We believe that we not only think more interesting thoughts, but live more interesting lives.
This is one of the premises of Talk, a 1968 work by Linda Rosenkrantz, recently reissued by NYRB Classics. Though the book was originally marketed as a work of fiction, Rosenkrantz, who says she’s “leery of the word novel,” insists that it contains nothing but facts. These facts are a series of real-life conversations between three close friends, all creative types around thirty, recorded by Rosenkrantz during the summer of 1965. Like many artists of her era, Rosenkrantz wanted to close the gap between art and life—Robert Rauschenberg was one of her primary influences. To make her “reality novel,” she transcribed the recordings, then winnowed down the 1,500 manuscript pages, fashioning a slim volume composed entirely of dialogue. Her selection process was admittedly haphazard. Speaking at a reading in July, she confessed that she wasn’t sure how the narrative would be structured, but was pleased to see that the book “ended up having a kind of plot.” The narrative proceeds from one evening in early summer to a night on the verge of fall, moving from Manhattan to East Hampton and back again.
For a book that promises the sexiness and wit of the 1960s art scene, Talk is far less scintillating than we would expect. The conversations are repetitive, the topics banal. The three friends talk about their sex lives with the same jaded disinterest as they discuss their dinner plans. Everything is fair game, for discussion and for literature both.
Talk, then, is a work of confessional fiction, about confessional friendship. This mode of friendship doesn’t make for especially interesting art—there’s little narrative drama and even less aesthetic craft. Still, Talk is intriguing—its shortcomings, as a work of art, point to the limits of friendships founded on shameless over-sharing. While confessional friendship seems admirable at first (who could object to emotional honesty and unconditional love?), we soon see that these tell-all relationships are inflexible; they belong to times of immaturity and uncertainty, before ambition helps shape an adult life. It is possible to talk ourselves in circles and wake up months later, unchanged. For all that it exults in confessional conversation, Talk reminds us that there’s much to be gained by holding some things back.
Talk opens with some friendly competition. Marsha, a writer and Rosenkrantz’s alter ego, is packing for her summer vacation with the help of her friend Emily, an actress who is drinking too much and dreading her thirtieth birthday. The two compare past romantic missteps and ongoing neuroses. “Don’t forget I did sleep with Zeke long after you slept with Michael Christy,” Marsha reminds Emily. “You’re crazy,” Emily responds. Their tales of “psychotic self-destructiveness” are punctuated by discussions of what underwear to pack and what drink goes best with brownies. This first bit of dialogue sets the tone for the conversations we’re about to read: casual and confessional, bawdy and self-deprecating.
The women head to East Hampton, where they join their friend Vincent, a gay painter recently separated from his longtime partner. Missing their psychoanalysts, the three friends decide to engage in their own form of talk therapy. For the next few weeks, as they stroll the beach and feast on clams, their dialogue circles back to the same themes, the same lovers. Each character gets a chance to share childhood traumas and unhealthy sexual hang-ups. Nothing is off-limits, and nothing scandalizes—not one-night stands, not drug use, not S&M.
Talk is more ambivalent about friendship than it is about marriage.
What distinguishes their confessional friendship from other forms of camaraderie is both the detailed disclosures and the frequent, honest criticism levied at each other and others. A mutual acquaintance is “paranoid,” Emily is “pathetic.” No one is immune from judgment. As Vincent says, his own self-indulgence allows him to “recognize it in others.” Often, though, the friends offer diagnosis rather than scorn. When Marsha describes forgiving a lover, Vincent compares this to “Your father forgiving you.” Emily encourages Marsha to “analyze” her discomfort with drunkenness. The overall narrative is meandering and associative, like the monologues delivered from a psychoanalyst’s couch. Behaviors are “healthy,” friends are “sick,” and all three are preoccupied with their “syndrome” and their “healing.”
There’s a goal to all this talk: to become psychologically healthy enough to snag a man. Though the two women celebrate their sexual liberation, Marsha and Emily look forward to a time when they will be married. At that point, they expect that their intimate friendships will fall away, since romantic love, the friends decide, requires not confession but concealment. “Love is not play,” Vincent says at one point, “love is hard work and it’s strategy and it’s not being yourself, not giving vent to every feeling you have.” Thus, Marsha predicts that Emily won’t “share as much” with friends when she is in a “real relationship.” Emily is predicted to marry within the year. Near the end of the book, she admits her desire to be done with sexual adventuring:
You know I’d really like to talk about love for a second, Marshie, because I’ve said a lot of very twenty-nine-year-old drunken things this summer. But I can say right now that I don’t want any more married men and I don’t want any weak men and I don’t want any men that I’ve ever known before. I think I’m just about ready to find someone who’s healthy enough to take the chance of getting married to me.
“Amen,” Marsha says.
All this talk of marriage is surprising, given how much skepticism the friends express about conventional romantic relationships. Even as the women profess to want traditional marriages, they worry that such unions are no longer available, or perhaps that they never really were. “I’m not so sure that men and women can love each other and grow families,” Emily muses. At another moment, Vincent delivers a monologue against monogamy, noting that marriage has always depended on the subjugation of women. Marsha occasionally imagines a potential life partnership with Vincent—a non-romantic, non-sexual marriage between friends. This idea is ultimately discarded, but by entertaining it, even briefly and ironically, Marsha suggests that intimacy can take many forms.
It was too early, in 1965, to see alternative forms of intimacy as real options. Cracks had only started to appear in the portrait of the perfect nuclear family, a pervasive cultural icon during the Cold War era. In the decade’s early years, women returned to the workforce and pursued advanced studies. In the summer of 1965, the “women’s movement” was gathering steam—it had named the problem with housework and identified some solutions—but when it came to the arrangement of a woman’s intimate lives, monogamous marriage still seemed like the only path.
Talk offers sexual content without sexual politics; it’s bold but not transgressive or utopian. This, perhaps, come from its time. Talk is perched uneasily in between eras. It’s written after the proliferation of the birth control pill and the publication of The Feminine Mystique (1963), but before the Summer of Love and the advent of radical feminism. Rosenkrantz, the founding editor of Sotheby’s Auction magazine and a participant in the downtown arts scene, surely witnessed changing sexual mores. But the book is more ambivalent about friendship than it is about marriage. In the end, Emily and Marsha predict, marriage will win out, and friendship will move back to its rightful place on the margins of their lives.
Talk concludes before this reconfiguration comes to pass. The book ends where it began, in Marsha’s Manhattan bedroom, with an open suitcase and a pair of old friends. “We’re right back where we started,” Emily says. For women who are deliberately working on themselves—who were hoping to move forward to marriage, not back toward each other—this observation is at once comforting and chilling.
But the characters know that the social world they inhabit could soon change. As Vincent says, “We’re all pioneers going through new frontiers, new jungles, we’re breaking psychic, social land so that the people following us will be able to lead better lives.”
When it comes to non-romantic love, Vincent now seems prescient. Many writers and directors are today exploring the nature of friendship with new energy. The buddy narrative, a favorite of Twain and Kerouac, is experiencing a renaissance. From the films of Judd Apatow to the published quarrels of David Shields and Caleb Powell, “bromances” show men practicing emotional intimacy with other men, often in ways uncomfortable for them and for us. Meanwhile, others—Sheila Heti, Lena Dunham, and Elena Ferrante—are probing the powerful, complicated nature of female friendship. Their narratives show creative women forming friendships around their work; their conversations are more frequently about how to make art than how to keep a man.
This literary phenomenon reflects the cultural change that was budding at the time of Talk. Marriage occupies a less privileged position than it once did; more Americans live alone, or with friends, than ever before. As Joanna Biggs explains in the London Review of Books, the “small feminist gestures” in Heti’s novel How Should a Person Be? (2012) occur alongside the “big, almost invisible one at its centre: Sheila and Margaux’s relationship is the story.” Romance isn’t entirely absent from these stories, but neither is it presented as a danger to non-romantic relationships; characters don’t anticipate ending friendships when they date or marry. Today’s literary female friendships are more resilient and durable than those found in Rosenkrantz’s work.
Though some of these friendship narratives are confessional in form—both Heti’s book and Dunham’s show Girls are clearly drawn from their creators’ lives—they often depict the problems with the confessional model of friendship. They don’t counsel constant honesty, and they don’t laud unconditional acceptance. Instead, these are stories about the value of concealment. Heti’s artist friends have a falling out after Sheila borrows too much from Margaux’s life. Sheila tapes their conversations for her future play, and she purchases a dress identical to her friend’s. Margaux finds out, feels betrayed, and breaks off communication. The two make up by establishing that not everything should be shared. “Boundaries, Sheila,” Margaux reminds the narrator. “Barriers. They let you love someone. Otherwise you might kill them.” This theory of friendship is the precise opposite of what we see in Talk, a work in which friendship is enabled by confession, and abjection serves as the foundation for intimacy.
Confession, indeed, isn’t the only way that friendships might be formed. “It is the great illusion of our culture that what we confess to is who we are.” So concludes Vivian Gornick in her recent memoir, The Odd Woman and The City. Gornick, a writer of Rosenkrantz’s generation, is meditating on friendship, specifically, the friendship between two Romantic poets who brought out the best in each other. “One’s own best self,” she muses.
For centuries, this was the key concept behind any essential definition of friendship: that one’s friend is a virtuous being who speaks to the virtue in oneself. How foreign is such a concept to the children of therapeutic culture! Today we do not look to see, much less affirm, our best selves in one another. To the contrary, it is the openness with which we admit to our emotional incapacities—the fear, the anger, the humiliation—that excites contemporary bonds of friendship. Nothing draws us closer to one another than the degree to which we face our deepest shame openly in one another’s company. Coleridge and Wordsworth dreaded such self-exposure; we adore it. What we want is to feel known, warts and all: the more warts the better.
Gornick’s words apply just as much to the friendships in Talk as to the confessional friendships of the current moment. Emily, Vincent, and Marsha adore each other’s warts; more than that, they adore pointing out new ones. For Gornick, though, non-romantic intimacy can and should be cultivated without confession. In fact, concealing the less flattering parts of the self might actually facilitate a friendship, by leaving room for impersonal discussions of the values that guide our personal lives. One imagines the conversations Gornick has with her friends—conversations she alludes to but rarely transcribes—as talk that works toward this virtuous end, moving from the personal to the existential. This kind of conversation is not always be attainable, but, like our own best selves, it might be something to which we could aspire.
In the last chapter of Talk, Marsha tells Emily about a therapy session she has had upon returning to the city. “I was going to go in and tell him I had had such a constructive summer of working and studying myself and this and that,” she relates. “Instead all I did was qvetch [sic] about what a horrible person I emerged as on the tapes and how all the three of us talk about is sex and food and yet how I felt we were the only people who communicate in the world, blablabla.” Marsha’s kvetching is a thrice-told tale; she confesses to one sympathetic listener, then shares the story of this confession with another, and finally shares it with us. She feels bad about her friends’ banality, then feels bad about feeling bad, or maybe about not feeling bad enough.
Talk finally contains a critique. The book is all about shamelessness, but it ends with a moment of shame and self-awareness. The friends’ implicit skittishness about their sexual escapades, their anxieties about the future and their soon-to-be-lost friendships, raise questions about non-romantic love that future generations will try to answer. For all her missteps, the path that Rosenkrantz pioneered is an important one—it enabled those who followed to make better art and to imagine better lives.