Reviews

Look at Your Game, Girl: On Emma Cline’s ‘The Girls’

By posted at 6:00 am on June 6, 2016 21

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There is so much I wish I could unknow about Emma Cline and her debut novel The Girls. I wish, for instance, that I didn’t know Cline was 25 when she sold the book, or that Random House paid a reported $2 million-plus for it as part of a three-book deal. I wish, too, that it weren’t so obvious that the cult that Cline’s narrator, Evie Boyd, joins in the novel is based on the Manson Family, whose senseless 1969 rampage at the home of Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate has been the subject of countless books and documentaries. Finally, I wish Cline hadn’t chosen to tell the story in the retrospective first person, both because the heavy-handed foreshadowing in the framing story kills any lingering doubt over what’s going to happen, but also because Cline’s narrative voice is so much smarter and more emotionally aware than the girl she’s writing about that it’s often hard to believe they’re the same person.

covercoverCline is a gifted stylist, and her subject is a sensational one, which is no doubt why her editors saw in The Girls the potential for a breakout literary thriller like Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics or Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. But I fear New York publishing has jumped the gun here. The weight of expectation that comes with the headline-grabbing book advance combined with Cline’s inexperience as novelist cancels out the many flashes of fine writing in The Girls, leaving the reader wishing this talented young writer had been allowed to develop slowly, under the radar, instead of being showered with cash and pre-publicity before her craft had caught up to her prodigious gifts.

Those gifts are on display in the novel’s perfectly realized opening scene when Evie first sees the female acolytes of the Charlie Manson stand-in, here called Russell Hadrick, in the summer of 1969. The scene unfolds like the opening shot of a 1970s art-house thriller, all saturated color and sinuous slow-motion, as Evie watches the scruffy, long-haired girls saunter through a suburban picnic, seeming to “glide above all that was happening around them, tragic and separate. Like royalty in exile.”

Evie, a lonely 14-year-old whose parents are divorcing, is mesmerized by the girls’ mix of grunginess and hauteur, noticing how “a ripple of awareness followed them through the park.

The sun spiked through the trees like always — the drowsy willows, the hot wind gusting over the picnic blankets — but the familiarity of the day was disturbed by the path the girls cut across the regular world. Sleek and thoughtless as sharks breaching the water.

The novel begins to sag soon after this bravura start, though it takes a while to figure that out because Cline writes so well even when there isn’t much going on. Cline sometimes tries too hard and she might want to dial down the reflexive sentence fragments, but she has a natural’s eye for the telling detail, the single image that makes a character indelible: a girl with a “face as blank as a spoon,” a smarmy young drug runner whose “upper-class upbringing kicked in like a first language.” A few pages later, Cline nails the look of the late-1960s Haight-Ashbury in one pitch-perfect sentence: “Everyone was healthy, tan, and heavy with decoration, and if you weren’t, that was a thing, too — you could be some moon creature, chiffon over lamp shades, on a kitchari cleanse that stained all your dishes with turmeric.”

But whatever they may say in MFA programs these days, a novel is more than the sum of its sentences. For much of the first 100 pages, before Evie gets caught up in Russell’s cult, The Girls is a glacially slow tale of a lonely teenager struggling to come to terms with her parents’ divorce. Here and there the social and political freakiness of the Vietnam-era 1960s penetrates Evie’s cocoon-like suburban existence, but for far too long the book reads like a well-written but underplotted Judy Blume novel.

One plods through this familiar territory waiting for the shock of Evie’s immersion into the cult, only to find oneself once again dropped into a world that all too neatly matches one’s expectations. Cline has combined a few of the real-life characters for narrative simplicity, and moved the group’s base of operations from a ranch north of Los Angeles to a ranch north of San Francisco, but in every other way she has simply inserted the fictional Evie as a minor player in the true-crime story of the Manson Family.

Here we have Russell/Charlie, a scuzzy Flower Power Wizard of Oz in buckskins and bare feet yammering on about free love and emancipation from straight-world hangups while dreaming of being a rock star. Here we have an actual rock star, Mitch Lewis, based on Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson, who befriended Manson and introduced him to music producers that Manson thought would make him a star. And most important of all, we have the teenage girls who idolize Russell/Charlie, sleep with him, cook and clean up after him — and ultimately kill for him.

covercoverCline is very good on the heady concoction of big-sister admiration and suppressed sexual longing that draws Evie to one of these girls, Suzanne Parker. If she had distilled the relationship between these two — one a lost, love-hungry suburban teen, the other a knowing, manipulative would-be murderer — into a taut short story, or else deviated from the Manson Family script to carry Evie and Suzanne’s relationship to its logical conclusion, perhaps Cline could have added some fresh perspective on one of the most exhaustively documented crimes in American history. As it is, by hewing to the history of the Manson murders, and tossing in Evie as an innocent bystander, Cline manages only a pallid fictional retelling of a famous story that readers can get in more vivid form in Jeff Guinn’s excellent 2013 biography Manson or prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi’s 1974 true-crime classic Helter Skelter.

Younger readers, for whom the turbulent ’60s are as distant and exotic as World War II is to a Gen Xer like me, may not be as put off by the second-hand quality of the historical material in The Girls. But even readers who know nothing about the Manson murders and the period that gave rise to them may wonder whether Evie’s decisions make emotional sense. Why would this bright, ordinary kid run off to a commune where the girls scavenge trash out of dumpsters and where on her first night she’s forced to give a blow job to the filthy little twerp who runs the place?

This, of course, is one of the enduring mysteries of the real Manson story. Many of Manson’s followers were ordinary suburban kids, and one, Leslie Van Houten, who was recently cleared for parole after 47 years in prison for the murders of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca, was famously a homecoming queen. But beneath this veneer of ordinariness, according to Guinn’s Manson, Van Houten was, like most of Manson’s followers, caught up in the madness of the ’60s, dropping acid in high school and running away at age 17 to the Haight.

This ultimately is what is most glaringly absent from The Girls, the deep gash in the societal fabric that swallowed up a generation of troubled kids. In 1969, America was losing a bloody war in Vietnam. The inner cities were exploding. Drugs and sex were everywhere. College kids were going underground to declare war on the United States, and high school kids were burning their draft cards and heading to San Francisco. In that atmosphere, which is curiously missing from Cline’s much-hyped debut, Manson’s apocalyptic ravings about a coming race war that would cleanse the planet of everyone but his followers could sound almost mainstream.





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21 Responses to “Look at Your Game, Girl: On Emma Cline’s ‘The Girls’”

  1. Jessica
    at 12:04 pm on June 6, 2016

    Thank you for this review. The Girls made me crazy for all of the reasons you cite—the fact that the Manson family is hardly fresh territory, the fact that the one interesting relationship in the book (the element that could have set it apart from the Manson Lit canon) is under-explored, and the MFA poetry-over-plot style. It would have been almost impossible for this book to have lived up to the hype, and Emma Cline has not been well-served by the rush to publish this.

  2. Emily
    at 1:33 pm on June 6, 2016

    Thanks for your thoughtful review. Haven’t read The Girls yet and I want to, and am sorry to hear that it may not do justice to that mysterious and troubled time. I was a teen in the sixties and vividly remember the Manson murders with terror and fascination, and completely agree that why teenage girls, from seemingly normal backgrounds, followed him is a central mystery. To shed light on that you need to understand the madness of that era, especially the drug culture. Looking back on the time, sadly, it is not that difficult for me to understand, especially given the perilous mixture of idealism, innocence, and drug induced delusions that characterized teen culture in the sixties. I recently published a YA novel set in the sixties inspired by a true crime that I consider a precursor to the Manson murders (or harbinger perhaps). In writing it I wrestled with the same question – why would a teen girl follow a sociopath and of course I am interested as to how Cline approached the same topic.

  3. Anon
    at 2:44 pm on June 6, 2016

    I don’t understand the point of fictionalizing these events. It’s like writing a novel about a President O’Shaunessey who was assassinated on 12/25/1963 by a man named Lonnie Henry Osgood, who was then in turn assassinated by night club owner John Emerald. It seems very coy and trite.

  4. Anon
    at 2:46 pm on June 6, 2016

    Maybe Cline and Garth Risk Hallberg can put their advances together and go in on a one bedroom apartment in San Francisco, where they can both sit and stare and the walls while they try and figure out what the eff to do next.

  5. Sean H
    at 3:10 pm on June 6, 2016

    I don’t see any reason to hate on writers for getting big advances, good for them. But if it’s for sensationalization over merit, then the blowback is going to be harsh. Less Than Zero holds up, even though Ellis was super young when he wrote and got a lot of hate at the time. He continued on to American Psycho and some other moments and his podcast is very interesting and he seems to be branching out into film. But does Tama Janowitz still have readers? In any generation there’s a crop of fresh young turks and most are flashes in the pan. That’s just how it is.
    I’m glad to see themillions at least offering a negative or tough review. So much online content on these types of websites is puffery and “OMG this is the greatest thing since Joyce!” that it gets stultifying.

  6. Heather Curran
    at 7:00 pm on June 6, 2016

    I agree with Sean, do not begrudge author’s pay, most writers are terribly under paid. I read helter skelter as a 16 yr old in 1977, scared the shit out of me. I pre-ordered Cline’s book, but my great trust in Bourne’s reviews makes me think I may have (yet again!) succumbed to pre-pub buzz. Damn, will I never learn?

  7. Anon
    at 9:37 am on June 7, 2016

    I will never ever understand people who are happy for the small percentage of people who get paid bookoo bucks while everyone else gets peanut shavings. I find it very strange. And then what I find even stranger are the same people admonishing other people for being upset or jealous or resentful that there are a tiny percentage of people making money while the rest of us make nothing. I’d like to classify you people into a type but I don’t know how to name you. I am can be named simply in that I am commonly referred to as a hater, but you, you who clap and cheer for those rolling in the dough, you’re almost like some medieval archetype who used to point to the castle way up high on the mountain and then turn to the rest of your fellow peasants feasting on horse scraps and say, Do not begrudge the King, for if it were not for him we would all be covered in darkness, or something like that. I write fiction and I would like to get paid, but I never will, and you want me to be happy about that? Happy that some 25 year old girl who was written the umpteenth fictional treatment of the Manson murders got paid one, two, three million dollars? What’s it to me? Do I get a cut? Does it trickle down? Are you some kind of weird neo-liberal Reaganite literary figure? Explain yourself. I’m easily explainable. I’m a bitter failed writer who has to work a shitty, monotonous 9-5 office job that barely covers my rent and food. But who are you, you who reads of other writers who get million dollar advances and smiles and gives a solitary fist pump? And are you gently sipping from a mug full of General Foods’ International Coffee when you do so? And does the idea that somewhere, someone, is getting paid make your coffee taste better?

  8. Heather Curran
    at 7:22 pm on June 7, 2016

    It’s hardly clapping and cheering. Sheesh Anon. Go after the business of sports if you are so pissed off about grotesque amounts of money paid out for nothing. And fucking lousy pop “artists” whose music is an assault to one’s ears every single time one enters a store. Not to invalidate your anger, but really, as a writer yourself this type of advance could happen to you one day. Will you turn down the money in keeping with your ethics?

  9. Myygod
    at 10:15 pm on June 7, 2016

    Great review. Glad as well to see something more negative in The Millions, instead of puff pieces. Since you mentioned that the book could have just been a short story, I’d only add that the book WAS actually a short story, originally, in the Paris Review. Or a short story with very similar themes (young girl becomes friends with older more corrupt girl, lusts after her / wants to be her, innocence is eventually ruined). So you’re not wrong – like a lot of things now-a-days, it’s a thematic short story stretched into a novel…

  10. Anon
    at 9:50 am on June 8, 2016

    Heather Curran: What ethics are you referring to? Did I say anything about ethics? I don’t have any ethics when it has to making money. I would take two million dollars in a heartbeat, but I will never be offered two millions dollars because being offered two million dollars for a work of fiction is like winning the lottery. Where did you get anything about ethics in my rant? I didn’t say she shouldn’t have taken it, what I said, which I think is clearly obvious, is why people like you have a problem with other writers being jealous or resentful of some writer getting two million dollars for some novel that is no better or worse than any other novel out there. Your attitude seems to be that if one person gets two million dollars then it is good for the rest of us, and this is what I find so mystifying. Just as you obviously find my troll-ish and cranky behavior distasteful, I find your championing of wealth for a small percentage of people distasteful and indicative of something strange I have never understood. I’m not saying you can’t be happy that someone else has made a shitload of cash, but my question still stands: why does it bother you that someone else would be irritated or resentful re: this matter? And please don’t tell me you could care less, because you obviously do. You read my comment and deigned to reply, so, what is it that agitates you about what I said? Are you superstitious? Do you believe that if too many people complain and whine about large advances for younger-ish writers that somehow these advances will cease to be given out and that you will not receive the bounty you so rightfully deserve for your own writing?

  11. Gart
    at 10:21 am on June 8, 2016

    “Your attitude seems to be that if one person gets two million dollars then it is good for the rest of us, and this is what I find so mystifying.”

    Well for what it’s worth on the Other People podcast, Cindy Sweeney, another million dollar baby, said the success of her book has allowed her publisher to take chances on riskier books by unknown authors with smaller sales potential that would otherwise never see the light of day – this according to her editor.

    Then again, with all the marketing $ being spent to push the big-advance novels, the case can be made that lit fiction suffers as a result, because books like The Girls and The Nest are presented as literary fiction when they are really middlebrow made-for-tv novels, the public buys in, and innovative lit fic becomes even more marginalized.

  12. Anon
    at 1:10 pm on June 8, 2016

    “…said the success of her book has allowed her publisher to take chances on riskier books by unknown authors with smaller sales potential that would otherwise never see the light of day.”

    Yes, just like all the small, personal movies Hollywood makes with bounty from the billion dollar grosses from all those blockbuster superhero movies, right? This logic doesn’t take with me. This is nothing more than rote, canned PR talk.

    Big money follows big money. It doesn’t trickle down.

  13. Gart
    at 1:54 pm on June 8, 2016

    “This is nothing more than rote, canned PR talk.”

    Possibly. It did sound a little scripted. However I think the world is grayer than you depict. Lawyers taking on cases pro bono, billionaires and their charities, movie stars/directors doing the blockbuster so they can pursue their “passion projects”.

    Best of luck with your rage, which can certainly be productive.

  14. Heather Curran
    at 4:09 pm on June 8, 2016

    Anon: “rant”. Precisely. Don’t mock or disparage my views and I will do the same for you. It achieves nothing (for me anyway).

  15. farnley doon
    at 11:06 pm on June 8, 2016

    “Go after the business of sports if you are so pissed off about grotesque amounts of money paid out for nothing.”

    For nothing? How about being really fucking good at sports? If you’re making an argument about people getting paid what they can or what the market will bear, why is it stupid when applied to sports? Lit/academic reflexive anti-athletics is so predictable and odious.

  16. Heather Curran
    at 1:25 am on June 9, 2016

    Sorry to the author of the review. We’ve gone off topic. I will not post again, nor read anymore comments. Yes farnley, sports are nothing but a business, it is all about the money. I hate sports (except golf, running and cycling, which I do for my own pleasure) but in my very own, personal opinion, sports stars and the trading and the dealing and the price of tickets and the drugging for performance makes me sick. Testosterone fuelled fights while the crowd roars like a bunch of indignant sadists. Is it so bizarrely wrong to expect writers to earn money for their work? And I am not talking EL James and that ilk. This website is for lovers of lit. ESPN (or whatever the heck the channel is) runs all day, feel free. And Anon your rage, while I am at it, would be more credible if you actually wrote your rants without hiding behind ‘anon”. Writers deserve to be paid a living wage. Don’t we all?

  17. farnley doon
    at 9:59 am on June 9, 2016

    “Yes farnley, sports are nothing but a business, it is all about the money. I hate sports (except golf, running and cycling, which I do for my own pleasure) but in my very own, personal opinion, sports stars and the trading and the dealing and the price of tickets and the drugging for performance makes me sick. Testosterone fuelled fights while the crowd roars like a bunch of indignant sadists.”

    I hate to break it to you, but publishing is nothing but a business, too. Athletics are beautiful, and very similar to writing in terms of human beings pushing themselves to the limits of their capabilities, in terms of striving. Cheering for these people, along with other people, is a pleasure. The reason I’m bothering to comment about this is that I see this kind of kneejerk opinion a lot in academia and the literary world–calling sports fans “ignorant sadists” is exactly the kind of thing that contributes to a rhetorical gulf between literature and the larger culture, and in a roundabout way makes it hard for authors to make money.

  18. Anon
    at 10:27 am on June 9, 2016

    Again, my rant had nothing to do with writers being paid, it had to do with the curious pathological aspect of some peoples’ personality whereby they hear of someone else making an obscene amount of money and then transfer that success to themselves and assume that everyone else should be happy about said success despite the success having absolutely nothing to do with them. That’s all I was curious about. Of course writers should make a living wage. Who said they shouldn’t? I never said that. Everyone should be paid a living wage. Except athletes, apparently. Does that include female athletes as well, Heather? Are the people who go to watch women’s tennis and gymnastics and soccer and swimming and ice skating sadists too? Geez. You’re kind of weird.

  19. Anon
    at 10:30 am on June 9, 2016

    Oh, and my name is Jonathan Wilcox. I live in Jersey City. My number is 609.979.6778. Call me.

  20. Heather Curran
    at 6:25 pm on June 9, 2016

    I promised myself not to read anymore comments, yet I did and I have new found respect for you both. Yes, although I am not in academia by a long shot, I am a police dispatcher in Canada, you both make valid points and yes, as the recalcitrant woman that I can be, I am prone to knee jerk reactions. A little self reflection wouldn’t hurt me. Thanks fellows.

  21. farnley doon
    at 6:45 pm on June 9, 2016

    Hi Heather,

    To be completely fair, plenty of sports fans are indignant sadist, just not all of them :)
    Cheers.

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