“There was so much to destroy.”
Every reader knows the sensation of getting really excited by the idea behind a book, then finding the execution is totally meh. When it happens, it’s natural to experience denial. You try to like it in spite of itself. You make excuses for the problematic areas. In your head, though, you keep thinking about how you would have done it differently, or how you would have restructured it if you were the editor. That was my experience with The Girls.
One of my favorite books is The Virgin Suicides, and one of the reasons is its haunting depiction of how the intense difficulties of being a teenage girl can lead to depression and, ultimately, violence. That both I and its author are male only enhances the sense of grappling to understand–we can only view the doomed Lisbon girls through a prism. We can’t actually touch them (so to speak).
The Girls promises to delve into the same territory, but this time the author is female. The prism is gone. She has literally been a teenaged girl and survived. The Girls promises to tell the story of how a girl on the cusp of womanhood becomes estranged from herself, disaffected and lonely–falling into a depression that gets her mixed up with a cult as an escape (yes, ultimately sending her on a collision course for violence). And it’s set during the summer of love.
Sounds terribly interesting, right? A story about a girl leaving girlhood and losing her way right at the moment many people believe America itself lost its innocence? Written by someone of the appropriate gender? And with a Manson-esque cult for a splash of danger and to hammer in the metaphors at work?
But immediately Emma Cline messes with the framework. She decided to have Evie Boyd, our girl, tell us the story from the present day. The narrative pivots back and forth between her experiences as a teenager and her present as a near-retirement-aged woman haunted by her own life. And this could have been done in an interesting way, but the truth is I don’t think Cline trusted herself. She took the easy way out. By having Evie tell the story as an older woman she is able to filter the entire narrative in the world-weary lens of someone who already knows the moral of the story–and isn’t afraid to share it with you. Instead of building to some deeper meaning Cline incessantly spoon feeds it to us along the way. There’s no sense of discovery or revelation, and it even drains some of the danger.
Then there are some curious turns of phrase Cline uses that don’t really work. There’s some odd description and some strange ways of describing things. Like when she writes things like this: “The air on my skin insistent, my armpits sliding with sweat.” Um, sure. I mean, I get what she’s trying to say, it’s just a weird way of saying it. She’s trying to conjure up a vivid world with tinges of the grotesque to accentuate the violent fringes, but it just isn’t in her wheelhouse. If you want to experience that descriptive style as it should be done, pick up Eileen, by Otessa Moshfegh. No joke. When Cline does it it just feels wrong.*
I kept trying to make The Girls work in my head because I loved the idea that lead to its creation. I love Cline’s anger that women are essentially denied identities in ‘traditional’ society, leaving them empty vessels waiting for someone else to define them. I just wish the vehicle for that anger had gotten the message out better.
*Full disclosure: months before I read The Girls I saw a Facebook post by my favorite local indie bookstore. Now, I love this bookstore but the owner is something of a book-shamer. If it isn’t insanely highbrow literary fiction or poetry he thinks it’s a waste of time. He might not tell you this to your face but if you shop there enough you learn to pick up on it. The Facebook page lacks the filter he wears in the store, though. There, he unfortunately lets his judge-y flag fly. Anyway, he posted a quote from a book about removing cloudy sticks of gum from their silver jackets, then called it terrible writing and said something to the effect of ‘can you believe this is from a book critics are falling all over themselves to praise?’ Flash forward a few months and I get The Girls from the library. That sentence about the cloudy sticks of gum is from the first thirty pages. I admit, I had a brief moment of shame after I realized I was reading the book he’d made fun of. Then I realized ‘screw that guy and his book shaming. I can decide for myself if this is a good book or not.’ So I did. I have wondered since then if my criticism of Cline’s descriptive style came up organically or if it was pointed to me by that bookstore owner, who made me hyper-aware of any weird writing. I took some time to ponder this issue before writing my review because I over-analyze everything and have decided I would have come to that conclusion on my own. Maybe not as quickly, but I would have gotten there. I still think that guy is a jerk for book-shaming on his store’s Facebook page (as a former bookseller I can guarantee you that is not something I would have ever done)–and I think he came at the criticism from a weird place, targeting critics who like the writing instead of the writing itself, but the point stands.