Tuesday 14 June 2016

The Girls - Emma Cline

Late summer, 1969– A car containing one man and four women drives through the California desert, heading towards LA. The car stops, and one of the women is ejected, left by the roadside to try to hitch a lift. The car eventually reaches the home of rock star Mitch Lewis. He isn’t in, but the house is occupied by four people - a man, two women and a young boy. In a savage attack, all four are murdered. Following the killings, LA is in a panic: the police appear clueless, and residents no longer feel safe in their homes. Eventually, the crime is linked to a group of hippies and dropouts led by Russell Hadrick, a charismatic wannabe musician. The perpetrators are rounded up, and their trial becomes a sensation, as details of the cult-like group’s lifestyle emerge. All four are jailed, but go on to become counter-cultural icons, emblems of the death of the hippie era.

The Girls, Emma Cline’s debut novel, is a fictionalised account of the events leading up to the Tate-LaBianca murders, carried out by the Manson Family. Although some of the facts are amended for narrative convenience (the Tate murders are left out of the novel, for example), her portrayal of the group’s lifestyle on their desert ranch, and of the leader’s psychological hold on the people around him, closely echo factual accounts.

The novel focuses on Evie Woods, the woman who was ordered out of the car. A footnote in the history of the murders, Evie has an outsider’s perspective on the events, and is able to analyse the women’s motivations – in particular their level of agency, and the influence of Russell. Through her, the reader sees how young women could be drawn into Russell’s world and commit murder, but also the way in which the legacy of their acts is interpreted by younger generations.

Evie’s first sight of the family comes at the start of summer, at a park in the Haight. They represent a sudden disturbance of the quiet, orderly world: 'I looked up because of the laughter, and kept looking because of the girls’. She is intrigued by Suzanne in particular: 'I saw right away that the black-haired one was the prettiest... there was a suggestion of otherworldliness hovering around her, a dirty smock dress barely covering her ass. She was flanked by a skinny redhead and an older girl, dressed with the same shabby afterthought. As if dredged from a lake'. Their appearance seems to liberate them from the isolating pressures of bourgeois life: 'I'd seen that they were dear to one another, the girls, that they'd passed into a familial contract… I didn't really believe that friendship could be an end in itself, not just a background fuzz to the dramatics of boys loving you or not loving you'.

Her next encounter with them comes whilst they are raiding dumpsters for food, and Evie is determined to prove herself to the girls. Gradually, she is introduced to the group, visiting the ranch and meeting Russell, going on the spend the majority of the summer there. The appeal for Evie is clear: she has grown up on a ranch herself, psychologically and physically distant from her peers, her parents have recently split up, and are increasingly self-involved, looking for money or spiritual fulfilment whilst neglecting their daughter. In the background, the hippie dream has soured – San Francisco is 'empty, except for the undead stumbling of junkies', and American involvement in Vietnam was reaching its peak. Idealism has given way to nihilism, and Russell is on hand to exploit this shift.

Unlike the majority of books on the Manson family, the charismatic leader is not at the centre of the narrative, but Cline highlights his messianic qualities: 'he's not like anyone else. No bullshit. It's like a natural high, being around him. Like the sun or something. That big and right'. Exploiting the spiritual gap in their lives, Russell teaches his followers 'how to discover a path to truth, how to free their real selves from where it was coiled inside them'. His hold over the girls appears almost supernatural ('Russell could read my thoughts as easily as taking a book from a shelf'), but is rooted in instinctive psychology; he is 'an expert in female sadness’, drawing them in with ‘a subservient lilt at the end of sentences, eyelashes gone soggy from crying'.

So are the girls simply victims, led astray by the cult leader? Cline argues that it is a lot more complicated. In one sense, she acknowledges the forces which shape the girls’ behaviour, from the societal ('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') to the personal ('Suzanne had given her life completely over to Russell, and by then it was like a thing he could hold in his hands … Suzanne and the other girls had stopped being able to make certain judgements, the unused muscle of their ego growing slack and useless'). But she is not willing to deny them agency: 'All the books make it sound like the men forced the girls into it. That wasn't true, not all the time'. It is significant that Russell did not accompany the girls to Lewis’s house when the murder was committed, and also that he alone attempted to flee when the group were finally surrounded by police.

The ranch is a space in which the girls can exist outside of societal norms, and Russell is not a continual presence there. The girls live more or less communally, forming close bonds and exploring areas of their personalities which they are normally expected to keep restrained. Evie becomes particularly attached to Suzanne, and in many ways is more influenced by her than by Russell. At first, these bonds bring positive benefits; however, as RD Laing’s son Adrian observed whilst describing his father’s experiments in communal living, in unstructured situations, communities gravitate towards madness rather than sanity. Increasingly, Evie comes to identify with the wildness of Suzanne’s nature, and this identification over-rides the empathy she would normally feel towards the group’s victims. When she hears news of the murders, Evie immediately conjures an eroticised image of Suzanne, 'the warm medical stink of the body on her face and hair... I can picture it, because I knew every degree of her face'.

In the present-day strand of the narrative, Cline presents Evie as an obscure, unattached figure, largely overlooked in 'the paperbacks with the titles bloody and oozing... the less popular but more accurate tome written by the lead prosecutor'. Whilst staying in a friend’s apartment, she encounters her friend’s son, Julian, and his girlfriend Sasha. Immediately, she sees parallels between Sasha’s relationship with her charismatic outlaw boyfriend and her own with Russell. Whilst the societal forces that pressurise young women have changed (Evie points to the sexualisation of culture in particular), she sees that charismatic outsiders still have an irresistible lure for girls like Sasha. Julian, for his part, has a garbled yet positive view of Evie’s past: 'I always thought it was beautiful. Sick yet beautiful... an artistic impulse. You've got to destroy to create, all that Hindu shit'. Again, there is a sense that close female relationships offer an alternative path, as Evie and Sasha go to a bar, alone, becoming intimate and pretending to be mother and daughter; however, the older Evie cannot compete with Julian, and when he returns, her connection with Sasha is lost.

Unfortunately, while The Girls provides an intelligent discussion of female agency and relationships, and is well-structured and paced, it is let down by the prose style. Cline aims high, but the tone seems too knowingly literary for a first person narrative; describing an incident when she breaks into a neighbour’s house with Suzanne and the other girls, Evie observes that they have 'jarred the inviolate grid of a home'. Later, she notes 'an almost feral percolation emanating from Donna'. Sadly, the style detracts from the narrative, leaving The Girls a rather frustrating read – there’s enough here to keep you reading, but not enough to really satisfy.

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