With Emma Cline’s The Girls contemporary American publishing succeeds once again in getting some variation of the word “girl” into one of its titles. That is about its only success. Too bad. The Girls comes with all the indicators of a blockbuster: great buzz, rumors of an astronomical purchase price, Costco sale availability (it’s where I purchased my copy), and some killer subject matter. After all, who isn’t interested in reading a fictionalized account of the Manson murders, one of the most harrowing and sensational true crime stories of modern times? Couple all this with blurb belaudings from the likes of Jennifer Egan and Richard Ford, both excellent novelists themselves, and you’d expect a real knockout of a novel. Instead what you get is overwrought prose, thematic confusion, and a botched stab at the presentation of female friendship.
The Girls is written as a rich pastry. As such, its extravagance might be satisfying in small portions but when consumed as a meal itself it leaves the reader bloated and nauseous. The problem is the writing is simply too ponderous and discursive. It’s clear that Cline wants to create dense atmospherics representing the befogged memory and recall of a damaged woman. But within this ethereal presentation the reader has nothing concrete on which to ground herself. It’s like watching a Terrence Malick film at his most tedious. These problems are compounded by a series of strained similes and metaphors which litter the landscape of the novel like escaped restaurant refuse scattered by the wind. The repetition of a song becomes “like the idle rattle of a lemon drop against the teeth.” Depression is the “sad limbo of hotel rooms.” A burp is the “memory of chewed meat.” The prose style of The Girls, then, is that chewed meat hours deeper into the digestive program.
If the prose of the novel is too nebulous the thematic presentation is even more so. Cline seems unsure of what she wants her novel to say. Is it about female friendship? A critique of the patriarchy? Misogyny? The stifling imprisonment of memory? The recognition of evil as an inexorable part of the self? Of course, it’s perfectly reasonable for an author to thread multiple themes throughout the fabric of her novel. In The Girls, however, the disparate themes do not emerge organically. They jump out suddenly. They jar the reader in their obviousness as if, having realized she left some thematic concern untreated, Cline rushed to include it in the narrative. The most egregious example appears at the end of the novel when, after pages of ruminations on the oppression of memory, the narrative suddenly shifts to the main character’s unfounded fear of a man approaching her on the beach. This quick switch to a statement on the social and psychic damage wrought by a misogynistic culture isn’t bad by itself. Rather, its appearance isn’t well integrated into the story. It reads apart from the story rather than of it. Too much of the novel reads like this.
Female friendship, probably the central theme of the novel, is the theme that suffers the most. Because female friendship is the foremost theme comparisons to Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet are apt. The Girls does not compare well. It contrasts perfectly. Ferrante’s female protagonist draws on the power and lessons of her friendship to claw herself out from under a life of impoverished working class desperation to a relative middle class comfort. Cline’s begins life middle class and ends up down in the Northern California wastelands amid a gaggle of cultish drug addled murderers. The most striking contrast, however, is the development of the characters. In The Girls there is none. Evie and Suzanne, the main characters, remain throughout the novel a pair of mere ink spots on the page, unable to grow themselves into full, live individuals. In the Neapolitan Quartet, on the other hand, the characters Lila and Elena are so well drawn, so full of breath and blood, you feel as if they are your friends as well.
There is one redeeming aspect of this novel. I’m unsure, however, whether its inclusion is intentional or not. Upon reflection, there is embedded within the story a strong and persuasive Burkean critique of 1960s radicalism and revolutionary fervor. About halfway through the book Russel, the charismatic Mansonesque character, tells his followers, Evie and Suzanne included, that their project is to create “a new kind of society.” They’re going to throw away the society that has been handed down to them and start anew. But here Russel only articulates a project — the abandonment of traditional values and cultural norms — that the novel’s other characters have already committed to.
Indeed, nearly all the young women in this book are the products of broken families. Divorce is common. The Girls’s parents have also divorced their families from all other American custom. There is no churchgoing or PTA meetings. No local political participation or attendance at mutual aid societies. There is no involvement whatsoever in the sort of voluntary associations Tocqueville admired so much about the American social fabric. Instead we have a population of characters flitting about from one new age spiritual trend to the next while always singularly focused on the fulfillment of their individual cravings rather than the social anchors of family and community. So, to give but one example, Evie’s mother, soon after her divorce, frequently leaves Evie home alone so she can pursue new men, astrological practices, and faux mystic dietary schemes. It’s no wonder then, unbounded by the comforting strong knots of inherited tradition, that Evie and Suzanne find themselves so readily primed to fall under the spell of a charlatan like Russel.
In the end this subtle, smart take on the 1960s break with custom isn’t enough to save an otherwise fairly poor novel. Given the commercial success of the book, however, it’s almost assured that Cline will return for a sophomore effort. Perhaps there will be something better in that one.