Loads of Learned Lumber

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Emma Cline, _The Girls_

FINISHED THIS, AS fortune would have it., the same day that the new Granta arrived, in which Cline is tipped as a Best Young American Novelist. She was already on the radar, one would have to say--blurbs from Jennifer Egan, Richard Ford, and Lena Dunham (!), reviewed all over the place, lots of best-of-the-year lists.

And the book is good. Premise: teenage girl caught up in periphery of a Manson-ish cult, but not in on the murders, tells her story some forty years on. Each of the novel's four sections begins with a brief account of the narrator Evie's present circumstances, house-sitting in a friend's vacation place, then rewinds back to 1969 and the story of how Evie fell in with the crew surrounding Russell and his experiment in intentional community.

The brilliant thing about the novel is Evie's being attracted to the group not by Russell's seedy charisma or past-its-sell-date hippie palaver, but by Suzanne, one of several young women orbiting Russell, but for Evie a star all her own. Fourteen or fifteen when the novel opens, Evie is looking hard for clues of how to be in the world. Her self-absorbed, thwarted parents are not providing any useful ones, nor are her pettily jealous schoolfriends, nor her suburban neighborhood. The long-haired, beautifully stoned, don't-give-a-fuck girls she sees in the park one day, however...especially Suzanne...seem to be angels from a freer, more exciting world.

Suzanne is a genuinely memorable fictional creation. I was myself fifteen in 1969, and I remember seeing such creatures passing by in the park, and Cline seems to have a preternatural sense of what it would feel like to be drawn into their force field, and what it might cost.

Mild reservations: some anachronistic touches in the accounts of the music, and in the presence of tattoos--as I recall 1969, only bikers and Navy guys had tattoos. Also, the 50-some-year-old Evie does not sound much like a 50-some-year-old.

The 15-year-old Evie, though, has an utterly convincing voice, even when it lifts into its lyrical upper register, which it does gratifyingly often, even in so unlikely a moment as visiting a neighbor boy's room:
Teddy led me to his room, expectant as I glanced around at his boyish novelties. They seemed arranged for viewing, although it was all junk: a captain's clock whose hands were dead, a long-forgotten ant farm, warped and molding. The glassy stipple of a partial arrowhead, a jar of pennies, green and scuzzy as sunken treasure. Usually I'd make some crack to Teddy. Ask him where he got the arrowhead or tell him about the whole one I'd found, the obsidian point sharp enough to draw blood. But I sensed a pressure to preserve a haughty coolness, like Suzanne that day in the park.

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