Monday, June 6, 2016

Shifting Our Gaze of the Manson Family: Emma Cline's The Girls

There have been few 2016 debut novels that have generated as much noise as Emma Cline's The Girls, set to be released on June 14 to much fanfare. Cline had published a few short stories and personal essays that she parlayed into a $2 million dollar three-book deal with Random House, the first of which is loosely based on the Manson murders in the late 1960s.

I have serious misgivings for these kind of huge advances for young authors, since every huge pay day that goes to one hotshot up and coming author would be better spent, in my opinion, on a wider pool of writers. There is no guarantee that the big ticket item will live up to the enormous advance and I assume it also puts an inordinate amount of pressure on the writer to produce something amazing. I'd suggest that last years version of this phenomena (Garth Risk Hallberg's City on Fire) turned into a somewhat unwieldy and overly long work because of some internal pressure to produce a big meaty book worthy of a seven-figure advance.

Being the bookish nerd I am, however, Cline's book was still on my radar and I was pretty stoked to receive an advance reader copy from Netgalley. 

And thankfully, Cline has managed to produce a powerful and unique book that not offers a provocative alternative depiction of the Manson murders in the late 1960s while exhibiting Cline's mastery of the writing craft. 

The Girls is told from the perspective of a fourteen year old Evie, whose sexuality is beginning to flourish with confusing abandon while the stable structures of her world crumble. Her father has left her mother for a younger woman and her mother's attempts to enter the dating scene result in a neglect of Evie, who is allowed to wander from the domicile home without impunity. 

Evie befriends Suzanne and several other girls who have come under the spell of Russell Hadrick, a Charles Manson type figure, whose megalomaniac personality has convinced himself and others of his transcendent talents. Evie easily follows the girls to Hadrick's ranch and quickly becomes initiated into their ritualist customs. Through high dosages of psychedelics and frantic and intoxicating introductions to sex and music, his female followers rush to do Russell's bidding, even to the point of committing the most heinous of crimes. 

There are weaknesses in this book (which I will get too) but the strength is both Cline's exploration of what motivated the girls to rush to Russell's cause and Cline's amazing use of language to convey her answer: 

Poor girls. The world fattens them on the promise of love. How badly they need it, and how little most of them will ever get. The treacled pop songs, the dresses described in the catalogs with words like "sunset" and "Paris." Then the dreams are taken away with such violent force; the hand wrenching the bottoms of the jeans, nobody looking at the man shouting at his girlfriend on the bus. 

Evie's own personal journey and her latter day recounts of what moved her to embrace Russell also beautifully convey what drove her and others like her to Russell's cult:

The ranch proved that you could live at a rarer pitch. That you could push past these petty human frailties and into a greater love. I believed, int he way of adolescents, in the absolute correctness and superiority of my move. My own feelings forming the definition. Love of that kind was something my father and even Taner could never understand, and of course I had to leave.

As fantastic as Cline's writing is there was a sense of a missed opportunity she had to write an even more profound novel that did not just casually touch upon the motivations of these followers but situated them in the tumultuous period of the late 1960s. 

As Michael Bourne's review of The Girls in The Millions, the  entire backdrop of the book is missing. The war, the civil unrest, the tearing apart of the tight nit social fabric of family are afterthoughts. Cline has been compared to Jeffrey Eugenides, but unlike Middlesex, Cline does not delve into the meatier subject matters that would have made her more insightful thoughts even more profound. Instead, we are asked to be carried solely by Evie's voice, which although enticing lacked the kind of social awareness that would have made it even more interesting.

All that said, this book is worth picking up. Cline is going to be an important writer for the next thirty years and I feel she has given us something to wet our appetites. The Girls showcases an immense talent and Cline will certainly write her great book in the near future. So go ahead and take a bit of the appetizer.

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