Friends and Images: Constructing a Self

Sarah Shun-lien Bynum’s short story “Julia and Sunny” in Likes explores one couple’s intense idealization of another romantic relationship.

sarah bynum
Dustin Snipes

When you’re a kid, it’s often acceptable, even cute, to form an intense attachment to another kid, following them around and wanting to be just like them. For me, the other kid was my best friend, Molly. From the age of five until we left for college, we were neighbors, and during our elementary school days, we were inseparable. We did Irish dancing together; we ate lunch together; we played with our Polly Pockets together; we (ashamedly) bullied our other best friend together. I absolutely loved Molly and wanted to do things the way she did them, for better or worse.

I’ll be the first to admit that our relationship wasn’t the most healthy. Comparisons and competition developed over the years. But many people grow up with a Molly. Someone with whose parents their parents get along. “Who’s your best friend?” is asked by plenty of kids who join sports teams together and move through different phases of school side by side. But when we experience a similar adoration of those we love as adults, we often feel discouraged to share and embarrassed to feel with the ferocity we do. Instead, by the time we get to adulthood, we are supposed to be better about differentiating ourselves from our friends, and society asks us to search for our “most authentic self.” We are supposed to figure out “our truth,” whatever that means. However, in late-stage capitalism, there is simply no such thing as an “authentic, true self.” We are constantly surrounded not only by media that tells us what to wear and how to be and whom to like, but also by friends and colleagues who are surrounded by it as well.

No matter whom you turn to for inspiration, they’re acting out an archetype of a character. If you want to be X type of person, advertisements and pop culture promise, all you have to do is buy the thing that makes you fit. Want to be a cool Gen Z kid like that guy in Art History 104B whose friends have a band that plays gigs at house parties? Pay for a septum piercing and buy a fuzzy bucket hat. Want to be a vibrant and strong woman now that your kids have graduated from college like the female lead on your favorite TV show whose style you adore? Get your hands on the latest BareMinerals powder foundation. So much of ourselves and our values today is shaped by a steady barrage of media images that we may no longer be able to pick out a true, core facet of self that we’ve been told lies somewhere deep within us. In her beautiful story collection, Likes, the January pick of the California Book Club, Sarah Shun-lien Bynum uses the images, tropes, and finesse of a highly stylized and mythic form of writing, the fairy tale, to showcase the failings of this pervasive social myth: that if you try hard enough, you can find a pure version of yourself.

Recognizing the myth of the pure self, many of Bynum’s stories express characters’ innocent and childlike desire for something perfect to cling to and shape themselves around, a deep reverence for another person or idea of living. Perhaps all that’s left when reality itself becomes a fiction is to piece ourselves together by collecting and emulating characteristic traits of those we love. But this, too, of course, works counter to finding our truest, deepest selves.

The seventh story in Likes, “Julia and Sunny,” reveals the extent to which the project of authenticity is doomed by exploring an extreme case of idealization that results in an utter lack of selfhood. The story is about two couples: the titular pair and their best friends, who tell the story of Julia and Sunny’s divorce by taking readers back in memory to witness their early days of courtship. Our co-narrators love Julia, who appears at their apartment one day during med school to chat about a fellow student she has a crush on. And more than our narrators love Julia, they love Sunny, the boy she likes. “Before we even really knew him we liked him, from afar we liked him, and sitting next to him in class we were charmed,” say the couple, and “incredibly, he liked us back. That was the great, unhoped-for gift of it all.” Their adoration of Sunny only builds as they share bits of his personality and endearing quirks.

In sharing character traits hyperspecific to Julia and Sunny, our narrators reveal that they have constructed an idealized image of their couple counterpart, a couple they believe to be purely authentic. A youthful search for validation, similar to what I sought from Molly, takes hold of our parent-narrators: “Settling back into the recently acquired club chair, our secret pride and joy, [Julia] propped her feet up on the matching ottoman and cried out, ‘I never want to sit in a papasan again!’ It pleased us to no end.” And later, when discussing Sunny’s behavior toward Julia: “We appreciated the clarity of his intentions, and the way in which it flatteringly reflected our own.”

Rather than explicitly show the narrators engaged in a struggle to find their own true selves—the more typical story of adulthood—Bynum makes point-of-view choices that show readers the result of a quest for the authentic self that seems to have already failed. At the start, the second couple seem to be narrating the story. Readers are pulled into the friend group as lines between the reader and the collective narrator are blurred. This technique allows us the space to forget our individual viewpoints on what’s happening in the story. How readers feel, submerged in the couple’s adoration, runs parallel to the narrators’ forgetting of themselves apart from Julia and Sunny.

While Julia’s and Sunny’s names, supplying the story’s title, are the crown resting atop the pages that follow, our narrators remain completely unnamed, and we know almost nothing about them that does not have to do with Julia and Sunny. Our narrators have become simply a vessel via which to tell the story of the couple they idealize. Their own couplehood and interests are unimportant to them: “With Julia around, we wanted more than anything to while the day away discussing Sunny, and never have to send ourselves to the library, or to class.” In keeping with the aesthetic of the fairy tale, the phrase “more than anything” incorporates the childlike tendency to operate at extremes of emotion. The only thing that seems to matter to them, from the start, is their image of the idealized couple, and they’re completely willing to let Julia make a fool of herself to believe the image: “From where our confidence came we couldn’t have exactly said, but it struck us as indisputable, the rightness of Julia and Sunny, and on this feeling alone we were willing to stake our new friendship with her.” Even the narrators’ son is brought up only to describe how good Sunny is with him: “Our son, Henry, has formed a strong attachment to [Sunny], somewhat less so to their daughter, Coco.” Not only is there no inkling of an authentic self within the story, but the narrators’ own personalities and desires are lost completely. Society’s project, gently mocked.

Feminist scholar Trinh T. Minh-ha writes in her book Woman, Native, Other that “authenticity as a need to rely on an ‘undisputed origin,’ is prey to an obsessive fear: that of losing a connection.” Bynum similarly critiques the authenticity movement by engaging both her characters and her readers in what feels like a radical narrative approach to Minh-ha’s idea. She creates an entirely new connection between reader and narrator by placing the reader fully inside the perspective of the couple who serve as our narrators, and she severs any connection our narrators have to themselves. They forgo their selves and their personalities in the face of the objects of their idealization: Julia and Sunny.

The “obsessive fear” of our narrators now becomes a loss of connection to Julia and Sunny, which Bynum spells out in their avoidance of Julia post-separation and in their desperation:

Julia and Sunny, as a couple, are over. We’ve needed to keep reminding ourselves of this fact, only because it is so easy to slip into the habit of hoping otherwise. Our hope has remained quite stubborn for the most part.

Much as Julia and Sunny are who the narrators create them to be, in an age of relentless online interactions, our online profiles are who we create them to be. Perhaps, then, it is our connection to our online selves we fear losing most. Yet our online selves are so detached from our real selves that our search for authenticity is hopelessly lost, untethered from even the fear it preys upon.•

Join us on January 20 at 5 p.m., when Bynum will be in conversation with CBC host John Freeman and a special guest. In the meantime, visit the Alta Clubhouse to discuss Likes with your fellow California Book Club members.

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