Tuesday, June 07, 2016

The Girls

Emma Cline's first novel, The Girls, is the kind of book that you can't put down. It's also the kind of book, if you're me, that fills you with jealous rage that the author earned an increasingly rare 2 mil book deal with Random House at the tender age of...wait for it... 25.

The Girls swings easily between the present, where Evie is a reclusive woman who moves anonymously from place to place, serving as a caregiver when she can, and her 14 year-old self, growing up outside San Francisco.  Evie is staying at a friend's cottage when the friend's son shows up unexpectedly with his girlfriend. "She was in the cult," he says to the girl.  The younger Evie is ignored by her parents, her life an expectant kind of waiting.  "All that time I had spent readying myself, the articles that taught me life was really just a waiting room until someone noticed you - the boys had spend that time becoming themselves."  Evie meets a girl, Suzanne, whose seeming confidence attracts her, and when Suzanne's friends invite Evie to join them, she is happy to follow.

At "The Ranch", Evie meets Russell, and is drawn into the world that they have created, what seems to Evie like the pinnacle of 1960s peace and togetherness: people living free and happy. Evie wants Suzanne's approval ∴ Suzanne wants Russell's approval ∴ Evie wants Russel's approval. Evie is as unformed as a teenage girl can be, easily malleable by everyone around her.  "I knew just being a girl in the world handicapped your ability to believe yourself. Feelings seemed completely unreliable, like faulty gibberish scraped from a Ouija board."

Cline's book has the astounding insightfulness of Being A Girl similar to the mood and tone of The Virgin Suicides. Like Eugenides, she captures the tragedy of American girlhood and its potential dire consequences.  "The Ranch" and Russell, are, of course, Charles Manson and his decrepit squat.  After finishing The Girls, not knowing much about the Manson murders, I fell down an internet rabbit hole about the women who murdered Sharon Tate and others in 1969, and how close Cline's story is to the actual events.  Side note: one of Manson's "girls" died in prison at the age of 61, and two others, near 70, are California's oldest female inmates. I read too much about the murders, to be honest, articles for and against their parole, including a sort-of serial from John Waters, and remain unsure how I feel about the women's incarceration.

Cline draws the reader into the mystery of what Evie's role in the murders was.  While her involvement slowly unravels, the older and wiser Evie is observing again, with no small amount of dread, the feeling of the transient, drug-fueled experience of her friend's son and his girlfriend.  She sees in the girlfriend the too-willing desire to please her jackass boyfriend, how she puts off too easily her own needs and desires for whatever interests him.  Their uneasy connection, in parallel with the '69 story, seems fraught with potential violence.

I thought the book was incredibly written and it really made me think about so many things  - although, one of the things it made me question was the sensationalism of this type of crime and my own place as a consumer of its gory details.  Cline's book doesn't dwell on the details (thankfully!) but draws a clear picture of how easily young women can be manipulated - that's what's most frightening about The Girls.

Sunday, June 05, 2016

Into the Forest

After I saw a trailer for Into the Forest and saw it was based on the "best selling novel" by Jean Hegland, I picked up a copy, always eager to read 1996's post-apocalyptic fiction.  In Into the Forest, you never really learn what event has caused the electricity to go out and all forms of government and communication to cease.  Nell and Eva, who live 30 miles from the nearest town in Northern California and were home-schooled, were already pretty separated from the rest of humanity when the lights are on, but when the power goes out, even their small connections are lost.

At first the sisters and their father subsist on the supplies they were able to build up from town and can from their garden, and as they run out of gas they enter a kind of fugue state of inertia and confusion, waiting for things to return to normal, waiting to be rescued.   

The girls are sort of living like the people in the really wonderful TV show, Last Man on Earth, where everyone is trying to desperately hold on to the society they knew before - maintaining homes, and standing around kitchen islands as if their refrigerators are still cold. Part of what makes that show so funny - going to the grocery and walking the aisles with a cart, or going to a bar to play pool, like everything is normal - is that we probably would do exactly that, as long as we could.

As it becomes evident that no rescue is coming, the girls slowly come to the realization that they've got to learn to fend for themselves.  The forest, on whose edge their house sits, was their childhood playground, but also dangerous - every time they went out, their mother would tell them not to eat anything.  It takes about a year for the girls to discover how much food and medicine is available in the forest. Hegland does a good job of drawing the reader into that realization, or perhaps I'm also so focused on sustenance coming from a store, that I also didn't consider all the food that could be had from the forest, and much better than the old canned vegetables the girls are eating.  For example, the girls tear apart tea bags to eek out a cup of tea every night, and when the tea runs out, they drink hot water.  It takes them so long to think of brewing the herbs in the forest into their tea.  It reminded me of this Louis CK joke where God is chastising man about working, and Man's like, "I need to buy food" and God's like, "There's food EVERYWHERE."

Into the Forest becomes really interesting when it dawns on the girls that whether or not the power comes back on, and it probably won't, the hopes and dreams they had then are no longer relevant to their lives - they become new-born when they enter the forest.

For the most part, I was really captivated by this book, I found a lot of similarities between it and The Parable of the Sower, another Northern Cal fave. I saw it compared to The Handmaid's Tale in a few places but it is not in any way similar to that great classic, aside from the post-apocalypse, whatever it was.  I wasn't crazy about (mini-spoiler) the fact that it ends with a baby, which is boring as hell and apparently the only way anyone knows how to end a story these days).  And, in order to avoid more spoilers, I'll simply mention that some weird-ass, *trigger warning stuff* happens that almost made me put the book down for good.

"What an act of faith and luck it is to pluck and taste  a little green leaf. With Eva standing beside me and our mother's warnings buzzing in my brain, I felt as though I were re-creating the history of humankind as I bent, picked a leaf, brushed a delicate coating of dust from it's surface, and took a nibble, so tentatively I think I expected it to burn my lips. But it had a cool, delicate, clean taste. It tasted sour and green, like chlorophyll, pickles, the evening air. It was a little tough, almost like lettuce that's bolted - but fresher, more alive."