Is This It

Perfect Tunes BY Emily Gould. New York: Avid Reader Press/Simon & Schuster. 288 pages. $26.

The cover of Perfect Tunes

Twelve years ago this May, then-twenty-six-year-old Emily Gould wrote a cover story for the New York Times Magazine, chronicling her addiction to, and subsequent disillusionment with, what was then still a semi-novel cultural phenomenon: blogging. The eight-thousand-word essay made her the poster girl of the overshare: It was accompanied by a series of moodily lit bedroom photographs that Gould herself described as “vaguely cheesecakey.” “Lately, online, I’ve found myself doing something unexpected: keeping the personal details of my current life to myself,” she wrote in the final paragraph. “This doesn’t make me feel stifled so much as it makes me feel protected, as if my thoughts might actually be worth honing rather than spewing.” The story’s denouement found her quitting her job at Gawker and password-protecting a hyperpersonal blog she’d been keeping about her feelings and romantic relationships, called “Heartbreak Soup.”

The magazine received so many letters about the story—most of them vituperative, most of them written by people older than Gould—that it allowed the author to respond on its website. Predicted one indignant commenter: “The great irony of the present century threatens to be that the Internet, a medium with far greater potential than television, will prove to be a wasteland yet vaster, used mainly for looking at pornography and by egomaniacs publishing their banal maundering.” Another wondered: “Will we all one day acquiesce to more government-sponsored monitoring because, hey, it’s already all over the Internet, right? . . . Will our president in 20 years keep a blog?”

How quaint to imagine a president with an attention span robust enough to write an entire blog post. The truth turned out to be stranger than any of the dystopian fictions in those letters to the editor. Government surveillance became an accepted reality. Gawker, Gould’s former employer, was bankrupted by a violation-of-privacy lawsuit filed by the wrestler Hulk Hogan and funded by a venture capitalist who has allegedly injected himself with teenagers’ blood. It’s enough to make one nostalgic for those innocent days of pornography and banal maundering.

“If Gould ever gets serious about protecting herself,” one of the commenters wrote, “my advice to her is to redirect her considerable literary talent away from autobiography and toward fiction.” This counsel, at least, came true. In 2014, Gould published her debut novel, Friendship, a wry tale of late-onset early adulthood in post-recession New York that, somewhat radically, gave the bond between two female besties, Amy and Bev, all of the nuance and dramatic weight that is most often reserved for heterosexual romantic relationships. And yet the characters’ lives were not exactly wild feats of imagination. Like Gould herself, the blunt, overshare-prone Amy Schein grew up in the DC suburbs, began her career in publishing, and then achieved mild notoriety writing chatty posts for a snide gossip blog, which she eventually quit for vaguely defined moral reasons. Gould’s decision to barely disguise the fictional avatars of herself and her friends could be read as reactionary, as though, to spite her critics, she was doubling down on writing at length about her own life.

Thornton Dial, Untitled (Mother and Child), 1995, charcoal and pastel on paper, 41 3⁄4 × 29 1⁄3". Courtesy Ricco/Maresca Gallery, New York
Thornton Dial, Untitled (Mother and Child), 1995, charcoal and pastel on paper, 41 3⁄4 × 29 1⁄3". Courtesy Ricco/Maresca Gallery, New York

In her new novel, Perfect Tunes, she has moved on from blog-era autofiction. Take this scene: A group of stylishly dressed twentysomethings sit in a Brooklyn coffee shop, talking “with enormous gravity about a TV show they’d watched,” before segueing into an equally dire conversation “about a guy one of them was dating.” But these are not the people Gould’s novel is concerned with; they are glimpsed and summarily judged through the eyes of the protagonist, Laura, who overhears them and thinks, “As if it made any difference who you dated or what TV shows you watched!”

Laura isn’t a member of a previous generation grumbling about “kids these days”; she’s roughly the same age as those sentient Gawker demographics. What sets her apart is that she is a single mother with a three-year-old daughter. Enjoying some alone time in a coffee shop means she’s had to pay for day care she can barely afford. Most other places, or times in history, Laura’s being a young mother with a toddler would not be an aberration. In Brooklyn, in the mid-aughts, it raises some eyebrows. “No one in her bougie neighborhood believed that an English-speaking white woman under thirty could be a toddler’s mother, not her babysitter,” Gould writes. In her bitterest moments, Laura considers “unfettered women”—the species Gould has heretofore been most comfortable writing about—to be members “of the enemy class.”

Most of the characters don’t own personal computers, let alone know what a blog is. The first part of the book takes place six years before the iPhone was released. Laura has to go to an internet café to check her email, which she does only twice. When she waits for her boyfriend, Dylan, for nearly an hour without anything to read, she just starts . . . doodling. On a piece of paper. No one sends a single text message until page 127.

Arriving in New York in 2001 at age twenty-two, with eyes as wide as twelve-inch LPs, Laura is meek but musically gifted. Her mind is often humming with “random jingles and half-remembered melodies.” She totes around a Discman and a scuffed CD copy of Joni Mitchell’s Hejira; her favorite track is “Song for Sharon,” a vivid ode to what she interprets as the act of “being an adventurer and not worrying about conventional trappings of female life.” She dreams of an existence like that, until she meets Dylan.

Shaggy hair obscuring sorrowful eyes, Dylan is the troubled heartthrob lead singer of the Clips, a scuzzy rock band whose rapid rise you can believably picture alongside the Strokes, the Vines, the Hives, or any bisyllabic garage-rock revivalist of the early 2000s. He’s not really an asshole, he’s just immature and oblivious. When Laura first plays one of her songs for him, he offers this well-intentioned feedback: “That’s really cute. . . . I feel like you could make bank if you busked on the subway.”

From there, I thought I could see where Perfect Tunes was headed: a wry modern satire of an artistic man’s tendency to diminish the work of his female counterpart. But just as Laura begins to find her voice as a musician, an inebriated Dylan drowns in a swimming pool, not even old enough to join the cursed Twenty-Seven Club à la Jimi, Janis, and Jim Morrison. Such an event might have given Laura some wrenching material for a debut album. One problem: On one of his last nights alive, Dylan got her pregnant. She decides that having the baby is the closest thing to keeping Dylan alive.

In Friendship, too, an unexpected pregnancy reroutes a character’s best-laid plans. But the curtain goes down on Bev Tunney shortly after she gives birth, her coming future as a single mother seeming tough but vaguely rosy. Perfect Tunes—perhaps not coincidentally the first book Gould has published since becoming a mother—does not skimp on the shit, vomit, or other biological sundries that accompany raising a child. (At one inopportune moment, baby Marie “simultaneously puked and shat herself so profoundly that Laura had to rush off to the bathroom to change her clothes.”) Motherhood reorients Laura’s New York: She goes from spending her time in stuffy, beer-sloshed downtown clubs to airy, essential-oiled yoga studios in Brooklyn—not because she has the time or money to practice yoga there, but because she picks up a few shifts a week leading a children’s sing-along so she can make rent. (Gould remains expertly attuned to the tiny details that reveal a bohemian-seeming New Yorker’s actual tax bracket.) Suffice it to say Laura isn’t focusing much on her songwriting. The invented bass lines she used to hear in her head have been drowned out by “a baseline thrum of worry about Marie.”

As Marie gets older, time flies, sometimes to the detriment of the novel’s rhythm. She ages in a short series of overbrief chapters, and before we know it, she’s fourteen and battling the same depressive and addictive tendencies as her late father and his mother. These connections and causalities can feel too neatly diagrammed: Pregnant characters puke with suspiciously fateful timing; intergenerational ailments are a bit too directly handed down. “I feel like we should have been prepared for this, or that we should have prepared you,” Laura tells an eleven-year-old Marie after she has experienced her first depressive episode, as though her condition were a doomed inevitability rather than a higher-than-average genetic possibility.

Perfect Tunes is a cautionary tale about a lesser-discussed form of intergenerational trauma. Laura’s creative unfulfillment—she dismisses her continued interest in songwriting as a “pointless, fruitless hobby of dicking around with music,” as if she’s internalized Dylan’s youthful criticisms—makes her a clenched, anxious mother whose obsessive cycles of worry push Marie away. Gould, in the end, is not suggesting that oft-told myth that motherhood makes artistic life impossible; she is showing, through Laura and Marie’s relationship, how unexpressed creativity can become as painful to carry as unpumped breast milk.

That’s some generous wisdom from a writer who was once cast as her generation’s preeminent navel-gazer. But Gould knows as well as the late Elizabeth Wurtzel did that the “confessional, self-obsessed young woman” tag tends to cling, even after the woman has grown. In the past twelve years, Gould has achieved plenty on her own terms, including cofounding the vital (recently defunct) literary imprint Emily Books, which published the likes of Jade Sharma, Barbara Browning, and Nell Zink. Perfect Tunes suggests that Gould has learned something from these uncompromising women about the importance of female self-expression in a world that still too often devalues it. Or maybe she’s just learned not to read the comments.

Lindsay Zoladz is a writer in New York.