Novels are complex distillations of observation and fact and fantasy among other things, and emotional if not circumstantial autobiography, so it’s hard to pinpoint their origins. Yet I’m sure that The Intimates began at least partly because I hadn’t often encountered adult literary novels where close friendship was the primary focus–deep, intense, long friendship with its great pleasures, its exasperations, its potentially life-changing influence, its conflicts and its affections all existing in roughly the same proportion as they do in other significant human relationships.
I myself have had several long and close friendships since adolescence. So have most of the people I know. For many of us―young people especially, but not only young people―friendship isn’t a compensatory or substitute activity while we wait for something bigger and better (meaning romantic or sexual) to come along, and it’s not easily overshadowed by romance or sex either. It’s a force of daily life―far less volatile and changeable than amorous bonds―where we go for consistent companionship, solace, advice, reportage, confession, laughter, intellectual stimulation, taste validation, referrals, gossip, debate, and a host of other things indispensable to the life of the mind and heart.
Yet you’d hardly guess that friendship is indispensable if you surveyed a lot of adult literary (as opposed to YA or children’s or commercial) fiction bookshelves. There are countless brilliant American novels about marriages. There are untold numbers of rich and wonderful novels about family life. There are novels about a protagonist’s dealings with lovers, or co-workers, or even the socio-political-cultural world to which he or she has been assigned by fate. Yet when friendship shows up in adult literary fiction―if it appears at all―it is often presented as a secondary or tertiary element, a side show to the main event of domestic partnership, extramarital affairs, dating, child rearing, family strife, professional or existential struggles, and the like, or a relief valve from the pressures of other more important endeavors. It is rarely in the narrative foreground.
Of course I know there are exceptions to this generalization–from Huck Finn to On The Road to Lorrie Moore’s achingly tender second novel Who Will Run The Frog Hospital?―and undoubtedly there are many more examples than I’ve read or know about; I’m not a literary scholar. Yet I feel fairly safe in saying that it’s a relatively short list given the prevalence of friendship in human congress, and that you’d have to search harder for these works than you would for adult literary fiction about other kinds of connection, and that the majority of novels about friendship concern same-gender affiliation rather than bonds between characters of the opposite sex.
One of my challenges in The Intimates was to look at friendship from a somewhat oblique angle: to examine the intense friendship between an attractive, eligible young woman and an attractive, eligible young man who don’t have sex with each other (although they’re so close that they sometimes, literally, sleep together) and to show how the wild card of sex–or even the prospect of it–affects their friendship. I also wanted to explore how their mutual devotion affects their other emotional attachments. I’m aware that the topic of straight female-gay male friendship has a certain currency in popular media. (Consider the new reality series “Girls Who Like Boys Who Like Boys.”) But aside from exceptional novels like Stephen MacCauley’s 1987 The Object of My Affection, it has been an underexplored subject in adult literary fiction. And for me at least, the non-literary representations of male-female friendship I’ve seen have often veered too close to stereotype. Rarely are the two friends in these depictions presented as equals with equally active erotic lives. Frequently the man is presented as the neutered, quippy accessory of a fashionable woman (the human equivalent of a terrific handbag) or the woman is the sexually deprived sidekick of a stylish or promiscuous gay man, or both of them are romantically starved and clinging to each other to make up for erotic disappointments, the way certain people become over-attached to house pets.
In The Intimates my two main characters, Maize and Robbie, have plenty of sexual access to others (sometimes more than they want), not to mention charged encounters with parents and teachers and bosses. But their most satisfying and sustaining daily relationship is with each other. I wanted to show how this sort of passionate friendship can be a form of romance―perhaps especially for people just starting out in the world–without falling into the trap of romanticizing it. For like any long relationship between interesting flawed people, true friendship inevitably has its conflicts and drawbacks. Its seductive comforts can be an impediment to forward movement; its enveloping embraces can shade into unseemly possessiveness; its platonic nature doesn’t mean that it’s pure or free of the negative qualities that infect other close connections. And so it is for Maize and Robbie, who mostly adore each other over the course of a decade but must eventually acknowledge the tightness of the emotional cocoon they’ve made together. By showing the marrow-deep pleasures of their shared company in The Intimates, and the various complications that ensue from it, I was making my own modest attempt to honor friendship―theirs and everyone’s–and to show it the literary respect that is routinely accorded to other kinds of essential love.