a review by Caren Beilin
Anne Marie Wirth Cauchon
Two Dollar Radio Press 2013
I don’t know if Anne Marie was there. Anne Marie, were you there? It was the 2009 of our MFA schooling at the University of Montana. I wore a rotting H&M pencil skirt and rubber boots from Goodwill that anyone knew of me to wear always. The Princeton philosopher Alexander Nehamas had been brought in to speak on a subject he had been cultivating for some time.1 I was there with my new boyfriend, sitting a few rows behind an ex, notorious now among friends for trying to sell me back the furniture I’d given him over the course of many months. Nehamas, to begin, pointed out that the novel, “despite the fact that, as a genre, [it] focuses on relationships that span large tracts of time,” had not taken up friendship as a major subject.
Anne Marie, I don’t remember seeing you at that lecture. My friend from Missoula, my novel friend. We were in a novel group together, something like six of us. And your novel the first to get published, the first of us. Nothing, it’s called. We were reading it then in its chunks. Do you remember Beth, she made us that challah, two loaves sitting on her counter under cloths, and corn chowder. She was the one who was from Montana. You were writing this Missoula zombie novel and it all made sense, that sweet town’s underbelly so forceful, that feeling I had sometimes that somebody was going to come up and throw me off the bridge.
Nothing is a novel that takes up a friendship. It begins by Bridget and Ruth, in a truck, driving to a party: “The truck swerved and I grabbed for the wheel like an instinct which made Bridget hit me hard in the mouth with the back of her hand. She turned to me lifting the cigarette to her face and took a drag and laughed.
“Shit, I’m sorry, she said. But you made the funniest face. I didn’t really hurt you.”
Anne Marie, I don’t know if you were there, you were probably at work or on a mountain, but I started to get that feeling you might get, too. I started to feel like irreconcilability rising. Nehamas was explaining Aristotle’s idea of the virtue friendship. I started to get that feeling, do you know it?, like my experience has always already been wayward, was gone, a rotting moon made of nothing, behind the sun. Nehamas layered atop Aristotle who layered Plato: “‘genuine’ philia—the one form of philia that comes close to what we understand friendship to be—involves loving one’s friends for their own sake”—“for him2.” This sureness of self, this monism we might find in a friend, to make us, after everything, love them.
Bridget and Ruth don’t know each other at all. “There was so much we could’ve said, needed to be said, but we were miles apart. The words when she spoke them didn’t say what they would’ve had they been spoken by me. Maybe that was what kept us friends. We heard what we wanted, no matter what the other meant.” Their friendship isn’t governed by understanding—but by driving. They are driving together towards some kind of death, is all, in the side-by-side of the car, someone inevitably in more control. Ruth’s power grab is a joke, a threat, a nothing, is all.
Nehamas’s philosophy of friendship presupposes a guttural, unitary self, this thing to love as solid as the sun, as findable. Just look up. Look up well. But Bridget and Ruth’s friendship is fractured, as fractured, interchangeable, as the self, from the start. There is no start. They were already driving.
And his philosophy forgets all the ways we, in our fractures, in our we-states, become beholden. To death. To other masters. To other people. To men:
“I wouldn’t let Bridget ruin this like she had complete control. I ran the tips of my fingers along the base of his stomach and watched the small dark hairs rise. If we could fuck, he’d forget all this. You could redirect rage like that if you tried, shove it into sex, into the body of another, his into mine like a beating. Tongues and teeth and the cock, your wrists pinned, strands of hair in your mouth. Breathless. Breathless. I wore a heather-green tank that was good for my tits and mushroom colored underpants. But he didn’t look. I pushed his hand away.
“Bridget is my friend, I said. We help each other. I’m not going to fight her over anything. Anyway. She wouldn’t go for some. Loner. Freak.”
What is a zombie anyway but someone—a being beholden?
Luce Irigaray writes in “Women on the Market”: “Woman thus has value only in that she can be exchanged. . . But this value is not found, is not recaptured, in her. It is only her measurement against a third term that remains external to her, and that makes it possible to compare her with another woman, that permits her to have a relation to another commodity in terms of an equivalence that remains foreign to both.”
Irigaray is concerned about women’s extreme alienation from each other (if also from themselves), their mawkishness in turning towards each other directly, without the intermediary of a “third term.” But Nehamas revels in this style of direct friendship, a loving, un-diverted look at a good friend, unmediated, uninterrupted. Anne Marie, my friend—Wirth Cauchon problematizes the directness, the direction of a good friendship, of being able to look. After all, we’re driving.
But it’s not a book of un-friendship, of enemy status. It’s friendship the way friendship has to hitch a ride with music. With the scheme of a moment’s rhythm. And go on through all the beholden fields. “Our smile was sly; we were the real deal. We’d been in it together so far, driving through the endless land in her vehicle. I remembered all the best scenes now, and she did, I could see recollection in her eyes. The pills we’d split or shared, the cigarettes, the slew of fools swarming around us, us gasping for breath and drenched in sweat laughing, us laughing in our faces at how we’d been sabotaged.”
Nothing is made up of more than all this. There are other particulars. It’s a zombie novel after all. But I wanted to talk about it as a novel of friendship, and one that peels back a trompe l’oeil sun, and puts a wrist in a rotten moon.
I left Missoula in 2010. Anne Marie, you’re in Minneapolis. I’ll see you soon.
1 Nehamas has published an essay based on this lecture, “The Good of Friendship” from which I’ve taken several quotes. It can be found in The Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, vol. cx, part 3. 2010.
2 His italics