The Girls by Emma Cline

cover of The Girls, close up of a girl with long hair and sunglasses(TW: This book features rape and some of that is described non-graphically below.)

Evie first sees the titular characters of Emma Cline’s The Girls during a community barbecue in the park, late 1960s California. Both she and the girls are outsiders in the domestic scene, she because her parents’ recent divorce and her burgeoning sexuality are creating rifts between her and everyone important in her life. Whereas Evie still looks like she can fit into this suburban pastoral of hot dogs and Christianity, the girls appear feral, with unkempt hair, dirty shifts, and exposed nipples. In Evie’s mind, they are resisting all that is painful in Evie’s life. They flagrantly dumpster dive and beg, when Evie cannot even be rude to a shopkeeper; after promising to shoplift some toilet paper for the girls, she secretly pays for it. Evie sees them and thinks that their rebellion promises freedom from the daily humiliations she faces as a girl, and she follows them, eventually becoming embedded into their community.

Their community, we readers recognize, is a fictionalized version of the Manson family, and the “girls”–young women actually, compared to Evie’s 14 years–will go on to commit murders as grisly as their real life counterparts. Young Evie doesn’t yet know this and is drawn into their lifestyle largely because of her attraction to their ringleader, Suzanne. Suzanne is the kind of charismatic girl whose attraction lies in how little she seems to care about how the world perceives her. To Evie, whose life is regimented by beauty magazine-advice, disavowal of the superficial world seems like the greatest freedom. Her desire for Suzanne, both sisterly and sexual, makes it worth living in the Manson (here called “Russell”) commune despite the squalor and sexual abuse inherent in that situation. She joins them for the promise of freedom, but as she becomes more deeply involved in their lives, Evie learns that they are equally victimized. They have shed minor worries like appearing perfect or gaining weight; Evie comes to realize that the dirtiness and starvation that invalidate those worries are their own concerns. It’s just a new, glamorized form of victimization, of preying on the desire to be loved.

Although lightly touched on because Evie herself is not the target of most of the sexual advances, the girls’ sexuality forms the core of the commune. It’s what they trade for the means of their survival, and for the happiness of the charismatic Russell. It also obliquely forms the rationale for the murders they ultimately commit. In this way, Cline recenters the traditional Manson narrative from Manson himself to the young women. The story becomes about their pain and triumphs, providing them with more agency than they receive in many journalistic explanations of the crimes. It’s a strange sort of agency, though, one that exists because of their sexuality, and can only be enacted through their sexual abuse.

Cline is very careful in demonstrating the very real trouble young women often have in defining rape, of disengaging themselves from feelings of complicity. It’s explicit in the work that Russell’s relationship with the young women is predation. Cline describes it specifically as “grooming”, a strategy refined to both secure sex from insecure young women and make them feel like it was their choice, and their guilt to carry. Simultaneously, she demonstrates why the girls are so susceptible to Russell’s techniques. Girls have no power, and sexuality can appear like one. Finally, they have something someone wants, a currency for exchange. Evie feels the humiliation and disgust inherent in her abuse, but she thinks of it as a trade she is making for the crumbs of attention that she receives in exchange.

The nature of her relationship with Russell and the other men in his sphere only seems more sensationalist, but not necessarily more abusive, than Evie’s exchanges with boys closer to her in age. Girls have nothing except sometimes their power over other girls, so there is always a power differential in their young sexual experiences, always an element of victimization. This becomes most evident in a series of present-day scenes that provide the scaffolding for Evie’s flashbacks to her summer in the commune. Present-day Evie lives a rather lonely life, jobless and dependent on the kindness of a friend for housing. One night, her friend’s son stops by to crash in the house on his way to a drug deal, with his newest girlfriend, Sasha, in tow. Evie observes their relationship and notices the hallmarks of a bad relationship are all there: emotional neglect, hints of violence, sexual bullying. Evie realizes, though, that they and their friends all see this relationship as deeply normal, a typical relationship, and there’s no way she can interfere. Young people won’t take relationship advice from anyone “old”, and her past as part of the infamous commune has already invalidated her opinions on what counts as normal. All she can do is share a beer with Sasha and hope for the best.

“Poor Sasha. Poor girls,” Evie thinks. “The world fattens them on the promise of love. How badly they needed it, and how little most of them will ever get.” This consistent description of the patheticness of girls eventually wears the reader down. All girls, in Evie’s world, are victims, and there’s no way that’s she’s found to avoid it. Makeup and a pretty face didn’t save her from it. Suzanne and the other girls’ rejection of all social mores didn’t save them from it. Cline’s book is one beautiful description of victimization after another and with each, I think, as someone who was once a girl, “This is true. This is how it is.” I recognize these thoughts and this pain. But this view reduces an entire portion of the human race to victims, which isn’t exactly true or fair.

The trouble is that we don’t have a robust enough way of discussing sex and power to describe relationships. This isn’t just a literary problem; it’s one with real life consequences in a world in which words are how we are taught to navigate consent and sex crimes are litigated based on verbal evidence. Cline’s book is ambitious because it focuses on these ambiguous areas and attempts to move beyond the terms like “victim” which has been employed against her characters so often in this review. Unfortunately, the deck is stacked so dramatically against the girls, it’s hard to say if she succeeds.

In reducing the Manson-family narrative to one of sexual abuse of young women, removing other complicating factors like racism and psychosis, Cline simultaneously provides the girls with more agency in their crimes but less agency in their lives overall. She refocuses the story on girls and shines a light on the seemingly endless humiliations that girls face, a worthy cause. However, to focus on these problems so specifically magnifies them. To create this tight narrative where the reader has no room to breathe, she has to create a world in which the girls themselves have no room to grow. One of the few characters whose age we know is Suzanne, aged nineteen. She is a woman. In this fictional world, there’s no room for them to become women, though, and they remain the girls.

At the Existentialist Cafe

Cover of At The Existentialist Cafe featuring four philosophers facing each other as if in conversation

At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails with Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Others

by Sarah Bakewell

Unless you have a specific academic or literary interest in 20th-century philosophy, it’s probably been years, if ever, since you’ve thought about the existentialists head-on, thinking of them as people or approaching existentialism as a topic to be learned. Yet their actual philosophy is always close at hand because it has so influenced modern culture, more so than you would estimate according to Bakewell. With this book, Bakewell seeks to close that gap in influence and attention, to make us revisit the existentialists, not only to appreciate their impact but also to take away new/ish approaches to contemporary problems.

Bakewell’s approach combines discussion of the philosophies themselves with biography, written in a conversational tone. The title explains the reasoning for this seemingly informal approach to the topic: relationships among the existentialists and the conversations they would have together in cafes were vital to the development of their philosophy. Not only vital to it but also an embodiment of it, as a philosophy that focused on engagement with the world and other beings. Thus the evocation we find in the subtitle, of Sartre, Beauvoir, and others, sitting around a table, sharing apricot cocktails.

This book makes phenomenonology and existentialism accessible, and ‘accessible’ can sometimes denote “watered down”, but Bakewell does not dilute the actual content. She usually uses the same metaphors used in the source material, but takes the advice of Heidegger’s brother and does away with sentences that encompass entire paragraphs. Sometimes pop-sci books give the impression of being disrespectful to the researchers, the audience, or both. Bakewell avoids that by never “dumbing down” the work, only humanizing and historicizing it. She inserts herself lightly into these histories, a method she points out is appropriate given the beliefs and methodologies of the existentialists themselves. Sometimes she uses it to provide herself as an example of fangirl, to show exactly the kind of personal impact these ideas can have on real lives. In other cases, it’s to make explicit her own prejudices about the material.

I’ll end with two sentiments from near the end of the book, where she reflects back on the material she presented. I think they sum up her approach:

“Heidegger once wrote that ‘To think is to confine yourself to a single thought’, but I now feel that this is the very opposite of what thinking ought to be. Thinking should be generous and have a good appetite.”

“Ideas are interesting, but people are vastly more so.”

How To Suppress Women’s Writing

This week I saw the second instance I’ve seen of someone claiming that the Ancillary series by Ann Leckie is not science fiction. I’ve already ranted on this blog about how ridiculous it is to dismiss these novels for their choice of pronouns, but this is an even sillier tactic. It takes place in space! Where people talk to aliens and travel through gateways! The main character is a sentient ship! But nope, not sci-fi, nothing to see here.

In the most recent issue of Uncanny Magazine, Annalee Flower Horne and Natalie Luhrs make the case that these are all techniques long ago outlined in Joanna Russ’s work on How to Suppress Women’s Writing. The article is great (like all of this issue!!) and really worth a read.

Shirley Jackson understands emotional labor

This is from Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. Eleanor and Luke are in the parlor and they get into a conversation about “what are the things people always want to find out about other people.” Luke instantly turns the conversation to what Eleanor must want to find out about Luke and she thinks, “he is so extremely vain.” She realizes that what he chooses to reveal will show him what he thinks of her. Will he say something to try to seduce her, or something to reveal her weaknesses? Here’s what he says:

“‘I never had a mother.’ […] ‘I am entirely selfish,’ he said ruefully, ‘and always hoping that someone will tell me to behave, someone will make herself responsible for me and make me grown-up.’

He is altogether selfish, she thought in some surprise, the only man I have ever sat and talked to alone, and I am impatient; he is simply not very interesting. ‘Why don’t you grow up by yourself?’ she asked him, and wondered how many people–how many women– had already asked him that.”

Two Tales of Murderous Children

This year I’ve read a slew of speculative fiction, some of it fantastic, some of it lackluster. Here’s two of the good ones from 2015.

Book cover showing the sihlouette of a young womans' face

The Country of Ice Cream Star

Sandra Newman

Ecco, February 10, 2015

The Country of Ice Cream Star takes place in a dystopian Massachusetts, after a plague that only affects adults has devastated the United States. All that remains are children who are not even old enough to drink. There’s Game of Thrones-level violence and politics, as well as well as a similarly epic reach, but here it’s all contained in one volume. Is this future realistic? Would children really behave the way they do in this novel? Probably not, but the storytelling is so good, I don’t really care. Same for the language. The children speak a pidgin Frenglish that at times caused me to roll my eyes, but other times it was moving poetry that couldn’t exist without the same eccentric vocabulary and rhythms. This book is beautiful and brutal and surprising and funny. Highly, highly recommended.

A book cover showing a girl standing on a dark fantasy mountain top

Archivist Wasp

Nicole Kornher-Stace

Small Beer Press, May 12th 2015

This one also takes place in a post-apocalyptic future, one with semi-corporeal poltergeists. The Archivist named Wasp is religiously charged with finding, studying, and killing these ghosts. She meets one ghost who still has memories of his distant life and together they go on a journey through the underworld to help him uncover the truth about his last days. This is apparently a YA novel, but I, not very familiar with modern YA, couldn’t tell until I saw it described that way on Goodreads. It’s dark without often being graphic. Its themes of loneliness, death, and betrayal make it richer than most of the other fantasy books I’ve read this year, YA or otherwise.

‘She’ as a literary technique in Ann Leckie’s Ancillary series

I need to write and revise this quickly because I just realized that my appertif was poured more strongly than I intended and I’m about to go downhill fast. I just wanted to make a short note about the use of the pronoun ‘she’ in Ann Leckie’s series beginning with Ancillary Justice.

Ancillary Justice often gets pegged as social justice-y. In fact, one of the implications of the Puppies campaign for this year’s Hugo ballot stuffers is that the Ancillary series is only popular because of its social justice elements. While the plot is definitely anti-colonialist, my impression is that their real complaint is about the use of the pronoun ‘she’ for all genders. Anti-colonialism abounds in sci-fi, so in this case it’s the ‘she’ that stands out. These critics seem to think that Leckie is using ‘she’ for political or social reasons like one might use ‘womyn’ or ‘ze’. From folk who claim to love sci fi enough to participate in dramatic campaigns to change fandom, I expect more than that facile reading.

Leckie uses ‘she’ in order to force the reader to feel the same confusion that Breq, the protagonist, feels about the strange cultures that ‘she’ is visiting. It’s not so relevant in the second book, in which Breq is primarily surrounded by others of her own culture, but in Justice she is on a strange planet, among people she cannot trust. Throwing the reader into an unusual situation and expecting them to think like anthropologists is a classic sci fi technique. The Ancillary world is not that different from ours beyond space faring, and the parts that are significantly divergent, such as ship minds, are now practically sci fi tropes. A ship mind no longer makes us sci fi readers uncomfortable and confused in that pleasant way that we seek. Instead, to create this confusion, Leckie introduces a culture that does not use gender tells. Not only does this provide a challenge to the reader, the kind sci fi readers crave, but it helps the reader understand the distance that Breq, as an ancillary, feels when communicating with normal humans. It’s really clever and is pulled off smoothly and beautifully in the books.

Of course, calling everyone ‘he’ would not have this effect because there are hundreds of sci fi books that already use ‘he’ exclusively. In most cases, it’s not usually for any narrative purpose, it’s simply because the author is either lazy or has world-building priorities other than creating a realistically diverse set of characters. Those authors have slid by for a long time without anyone questioning if there were political reasons behind those choices.

Ancillary Sword, the sequel to Ancillary Justice, as I mentioned above, mostly features Radchaai, people of the same culture that Breq belongs to. ‘She’ no longer serves to demonstrate Breq’s confusion and discomfort. Instead, ‘she’ becomes normalized for the series’ reader… until it’s not. The book mentions both domestic abuse and rape. I found myself wondering what gender the involved characters were, despite it being not at all relevant to the plot in this case. This led me to question my own subconscious beliefs and assumptions. Why would it matter what gender they are? If Leckie thought it mattered, she would have made it clear. Thus, in this book, ‘she’ serves another classic sci-fi purpose: making the reader question their own subconscious judgements.

tldr: ‘she’ serves a literary and not necessarily social justice purpose in the Ancillary series. It’s in line with other classic sci fi techniques and tropes, which complement the pretty standard space opera elements in the novel. By ignoring this fact, puppies and other critics are politicizing their fiction in exactly the same way they accuse others of doing.

The Cold Song

Book cover showing a house

“Jenny Brodal had not had a drink in nearly twenty years. She opened a bottle of Cabernet and poured herself a large glass.”

Thus begins The Cold Song by Linn Ullmann and translated by Barbara J. Haveland, with Jenny Brodal breaking years of sobriety with a drink before her 75th birthday party. Jenny is an anti-social curmudgeon who abhors the idea of a party, but her daughter Siri insists on having one, unable to believe her mother could be that bitter or, perhaps, having the celebration to purposefully torture her. As the story backtracks over the preparations leading up to the party, the reader is gradually introduced to all of the other tensions within the family. The husband, Jon Dreyer, has been lying for years about the book he is supposed to be writing but of which he has not a word. Their daughter, Alma, drifts about like a ghost, observing everyone closely while keeping her own secrets. And then there’s Milla.

Milla is the au pair hired to watch Alma and her younger sister for the summer while the family visits Mailund, Jenny’s ancestral home. From the start, she makes Siri uncomfortable. She picks flowers from treasured flower beds, talks a little bit too loudly. Lets Jon look at her a little too much. Something about Milla, Siri thinks, is just not right.

What Siri doesn’t know, but the reader does, is that Milla will not survive the party.

The mystery of Milla’s death gives readers a reason to keep turning pages, but it also manipulates the readers’ relationship wiht the characters. Each character serves as a potential suspect. To me this erodes, rather than enriches, the work, providing a cast of suspicion on each character where it might not be deserved. The Brodal/Dreyer clan does not need a murder to make them interesting, and it feels a bit condescending–or perhaps timid–to believe that the reader needs a page turning mystery to make reading about these characters worthwhile. I had the same sensation from reading The Dinner, but the popularity of that novel shows that many readers disagree with me. Those who loved The Dinner will probably appreciate this novel even more, in which the characters are much more sympathetic.

The book travels past the mystery in a way that The Dinner never managed to. The family must cope with the aftermath of the tragedy. It’s not as if any of them felt a great attachment to Milla, but they do feel a sense of responsibility. Milla’s mother, a famous photographer, begins to send cryptic Jon text messages. Alma, always a strange kid, begins to act more bizarrely and causes trouble at school. And Jenny, well, Jenny just keeps on drinking. In the end, when the reader has assembled all of the available clues and made her judgement, she will probably no longer care, because the heart of the story was never the murder, but instead the slow disintegration of the characters.

P.S. The publisher’s website has some excellent book club questions, and makes me think this would be a good book club book. I need to warn you though, that there are spoilers in the questions.

My Brilliant Friend

Book cover showing a bride and groom from behind, walking towards the sea

My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante, Europa Editions 2013

Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend is the first of a trilogy about a pair of friends living in Naples in the second half of the 20th century. My Brilliant Friend covers the youth and adolescence of the pair, Elena and Lila, and various other characters from their neighborhood who slide in and out of their lives, at times as enemies, at times as lovers.

Readers of Days of Abandonment will be familiar with the psychological brutality of the narrator. Here it seems the natural offshoot of a violent childhood. “We lived in a world in which children and adults were often wounded, blood flowed from the wounds, they festered, and sometimes people died.” After delivering a litany of ways she knew people to die or be injured, she reveals how deeply these dangers affected her as a writer. Words themselves became representative of danger.

“Our world was like that, full of words that killed: croup, tetanus, typhus, gas, war, lathe, rubble, work, bombardment, bomb, tuberculosis, infection. With these words and those years I bring back the many fears that accompanied me all my life.”

Elena’s rightness in fearing her world is proven time and again throughout the book. Young Lila’s appearance is defined by her various cuts and scrapes and lack of proper nourishment. There’s violence amongst children, but it is neither viewed shallowly nor given artificial deepness. The children themselves do not know why they are hurting one another; they stand and throw stones at one another until blood is drawn and then want to pair off as boyfriend and girlfriend the next day.

As they grow older, the threat of violence remains, but its form changes. Lila learns from a friend the words ‘Fascist’ and ‘Nazi’. Suddenly everything in the neighborhood has new meanings. Where did the grocer get the money to invest in his business? Why can this family afford a car when others cannot? What did our parents do in the ‘before’, the time that no one talks about?

Puberty introduces new forms of violence as well. As with the rest of her life, this violence is also dictated by economics. Elena’s first experience with sex is when a boy pays her to see her newly-formed breasts. Her second is when a pair of brothers buy a flashy new car and, one day, force a neighborhood girl into it. They drop her back off in the neighborhood a few hours later.

“‘You know why the Solara brothers think they’re the masters of the neighborhood?’”, Lila asks Elena.

“‘Because they’re aggressive.’

‘No, because they have money.’”

And why did they choose that particular girl as a victim? Because she “‘doesn’t have a father, her brother Antonio counts for nothing, and she helps [her mother] clean the stairs of the buildings.’”

This could book could easily become bleak, but Ferrante’s writing never dips into despair and only occasionally into sentimentality. Instead, as her narrator transforms from a child to a young woman, she maintains the naïvities and bewilderment of that age, youth’s acceptance for the world as it is. When the boy pays to see her breasts, his motives are unclear so she has trouble assessing how she should feel towards him. The grown Elena, who is recording all of these events, does not editorialize and allows the reader to make her own judgement.

The unflinching portrayal of youth is what make this book a true masterpiece. At the core of this portrayal is, obviously, the friendship between Elena and Lila. Ferrante acknowledges the truth that childhood friendships are rarely based on the qualities we associate with ‘friends’. ‘Amicable’ comes from the same Latin root as ‘friend’, as witnessed by the Italian ‘amica’, part of the book’s native title. But childhood friends are not amicable. They are jealous, violent, fearful, generous, shameful, serendipitous. While staying true to the central characterizations, Ferrante manages to show the friendship as a microcosm of the world at large, showing how all of these adjectives apply too to Italy itself. We live in a world, she suggests, that has not lost the cruelties of youth, but has lost the idealism.