Though someone would now pay a social price for referring to hostesses, coeds, or members of the steno pool as “girls”—that’s “women”—the noun is enjoying a literary revival. Following the success of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Gone Girl, and The Girl on the Train, recent or upcoming titles include Girl About Town, Beware That Girl, The Second Girl, The Lost Girls, The Girl in the Ice, Nowhere Girl, Sarong Party Girls, Girl in the Shadows, and Girls on Fire; as well as Good Girl, Good Girls, and The Good Girls; and Girl in the Blue Coat, not to mention The Girl in the Red Coat. Now we have The Girls, which arrives on a critical hallelujah chorus and carries a blurb from Lena Dunham, the creator of the television program Girls.
The protagonist of Emma Cline’s first novel is, technically, a girl who has become an old lady. In the present, Evie Boyd recalls her experiences of longing and desire in California in 1969. Bored by her privileged upbringing, alienated from her friends and divorced parents, and afflicted with adolescent doominess, she gets her groove back with a little help from—you guessed it—the girls.
A coming-of-age killing spree.
They are young women in the company of a thinly fictionalized Charles Manson surrogate, called Russell, and the girls seem to Evie, though she first encounters them dumpster diving for dinner, glamorous and sensual. Soon she begins spending time at their ranch, where they commune with the universe, eat garbage, drop acid, have sex, neglect their children, defy various norms, and, finally, murder several people. Cline is less attentive to the helter-skelter than to feminist empowerment, in the form of a coming-of-age killing spree.
Dunham reports that The Girls will “blow your mind,” but these doors of perception are better left closed. Cline’s style depends on free-associative sentence fragments and sensory details loaded with more foreboding than they can bear. “She [one of the girls] was pretty, like a consumptive, eaten by an internal heat. I tried to spot some pornographic residue of the night before, but there was nothing. Her face as pale and blameless as a lesser moon.” So in the space of two and a half sentences, the girl has gone from resembling a tuberculosis case to a lunar body. Evie’s mother “opened her mouth obediently, like a bird,” and an obedient bird is like an intelligent fish. One character leers, “his mouth as slack as the open trunk of a car,” as if anyone would ever say that an open trunk is as slack as a mouth.
Evie is never uncomfortable but feels “the dredge of discomfort,” and also apprehends “a socket of dread,” “a spill of hilarity,” “a fritter of energy,” “the sweet drone of honeysuckle,” and “the cut of anger.” She eats saltines and enjoys “the cut of sodium in my mouth,” and she smells “the cut of bleach in the air.” Evie nods “with a martyr’s air,” the girls beg for change “with their air of biblical poverty.” In this shard, try to diagram whether the rag is significant, or Donna’s gesture: “Donna handing Suzanne a rag with a significant air.” Things are always scudding and strobing too: “The strobe of my heart going fast.” “My heart was scudding hard.” A girl sits down, “thighs scudding on the vinyl seat.” “My heart strobed, helpless, with the tinny cut of fear.”
All this mood-setting is for Cline to imagine how a nice teenage kid could succumb to the influence of a sociopath, and her answer comes down to the power relations between the sexes. Russell is a predator and “expert in female sadness” who takes advantage of the insecurities and neediness of the girls, Evie’s included.
Not to blame the victims, but empathy has limits; perhaps there were precautions the girls could have taken to avoid contributing to their condition, such as not joining a death cult. Evie travels freely between her normal life, where there are people who care about her well-being, and the ranch, where she continues to return even after she is date-raped by Russell. As a result of the existence of such men, and the larger fact of sexism and sexual abuse, Evie absolves her own judgment. “I knew just being a girl in the world handicapped your ability to believe yourself. Feeling seemed completely unreliable, like faulty gibberish scraped from a Ouija board,” she muses. (As opposed to accurate gibberish?)
Then Cline cheats. Russell instructs the girls to kill some acquaintances, but as they are driving to the crime scene, the girls kick Evie to the side of the road. This climactic twist disobeys the story’s internal logic, but it does keep her sympathetic when she speculates, years later, about what she might have been capable of.
Inhabiting the mind of one of the perps, Evie recognizes the “hatred she must have felt to do what she’d done, to slam the knife over and over again like she was trying to rid herself of a frenzied sickness: hatred like that was not unfamiliar to me.” Evie’s grievances that permit her to identify with this homicidal anger, in full, are a time she was groped by a stranger, a date who ordered on her behalf at a restaurant (“I had no power”), and a man who was rude to her on a sidewalk. “Things like this happened hundreds of times. Maybe more,” Evie adds, so therefore, “Of course my hand would anticipate the weight of a knife. The particular give of a human body. There was so much to destroy.”
In this sentimental and accountability-free dreamscape, individuals, and the choices they make, recede. The girls are not moral agents who can be assigned responsibility for their actions, because agency belongs to a social superstructure that prevents women from leaning in. The political hot take is lethal for fiction, which ought to reveal the richness and complexity of a girl, not all of them. In any case, gender inequality, boorishness, the patriarchy, whatever, is an unsatisfactory rationalization of the pointless slaughter of innocent men and women, stabbed to death in a last convulsion of fear and pain.
Among the few non-monsters in The Girls is Tom, a college bro who gives Evie a ride as she hitchhikes to Russell’s compound. The girls are enraged when he saves a toddler he thinks has fallen into a dirty pool and remark sneeringly that the child was merely taking a swim. “He still could have drowned,” Tom replies with a useless air. “No one was watching him. He’s too young to really swim.” Evie is “furious” with her guest, and she strobes with a cut of relief when he scuds off, which “allowed the girls to deepen their natures without the fracture of an outsider’s gaze.”
In this sentimental and accountability-free dreamscape, individuals, and the choices they make, recede.
Before Tom leaves, he tells Evie, “This is an awful place.” She declines his offer—his plea, really—of a trip back to civilization.
The Nix is another debut, and another novel of the ’60s, and the ’80s and the ’10s, and a satire of politics, academia, and media. It also reads as if it could be a very dry satire of the contemporary mega-meta-novel, and maybe it is.
Nathan Hill applies all the best practices as required by law: plots, subplots, sub-subplots, improbable coincidences, and feel-good themes; literary devices implanted in the narrative (here, one of those choose-your-own-adventure kids books); unreasonable demands on the hours (The Nix is nearly two inches thick, with close type); cameos from historical figures (Hubert Humphrey, Walter Cronkite); and too much digressive information (videogames, Norwegian mythology, the frozen food industry, the counterculture, the Iraq war). The only element Nathan Hill neglects to include is a character named Nathan Hill. Foster Wallace and DeLillo, despite their large gifts, have a lot to answer for.
Yet there are too many shocks of self-recognition, and Hill possesses too fine a comic sensibility, for him to retread such material entirely non-ironically. “In today’s market, most readers want books with accessible, linear narratives that rely on big concepts and easy life lessons,” an agent—he calls himself an “interest maker”—tells Samuel Andresen-Anderson, a writer who failed his early promise and settled for the stasis of an adjunct at an undistinguished Chicagoland university.
Samuel’s mother, a radical leftist who abandoned him while young, re-emerges to throw rocks at a billionaire running for president on a platform of reactionary outrageousness. He’s awarded “an honorary Purple Heart” for his ordeal, while Samuel is moved to unwrap the secrets of his mom’s life. Hill has a talent for being on the news, and not merely for anticipating a Donald Trump figure. His depiction of entitlement among Samuel’s millennial students—millenarian may be the better term—is savage. A college sophomore named Laura Pottsdam is aggrieved when Samuel catches her plagiarizing. “That’s so not fair! I shouldn’t have to fail the class and take full responsibility for my actions. It should be one or the other. That’s how it works,” she protests. She appeals to the administrators, because Professor Anderson is “oppressive” and “triggers negative feelings of stress and vulnerability”:
“He told me I didn’t have a learning disability,” Laura said. “He told me I just wasn’t very smart.”
“Oh my goodness,” the dean said, looking stricken. Her office shelves were filled mostly with books about the Black Death, her walls decorated with old-looking illustrations of people suffering from boils and lesions or being piled into wheelbarrows, dead. Laura had not thought any wall art was more insufferable than her roommate’s giant weight-loss calendar, but the dean’s apparent interest in the history of open sores proved her totally wrong.
“Samuel really said, out loud, that you weren’t smart?”
“It was a pretty big blow to my self-esteem.”
“Yes, I’d imagine.” . . .
“His classroom does not feel safe,” Laura said. “It is not a safe space.”
“Feels abusive, actually.”
The contrast between the gravity of the dean’s scholarly interests and the little fixations of her charges is farce at a high level. The scene is even more hilarious if she isn’t humoring Laura, but truly is stricken over Samuel’s transgressions against campus pieties. Note how the text never leaves Laura’s perspective, with that tonally perfect “totally.”
They’re nostalgic for a time when they can’t remember what they are supposed to be nostalgic about.
But Hill tends to loop back and complicate his own portraits. Samuel’s mother was also an annoying kid, suggesting that Laura Pottsdam is not a new phenomenon. In the ’60s, his mother-to-be loves the “clarity” of school: “the single-minded purpose, the obvious expectations, how everyone knows you’re a good person if you study hard and score well on exams.” Her father tells her, “Nobody is better than anyone else. Nobody is special.” She answers, “It’s not pride, it’s—reality. I got the best grades, I scored the highest marks. Me. It’s an objective fact.” Even Laura has a poignant if pitiable inner life, of a sort. At the request of a boyfriend, she takes a dozen selfies “with slightly different pouts: smoky-sexy, smoky-amused, smoky-ironic, smoky-smirky, and so on,” and afterward, “she could not decide which one of them to send to Jason, because they were all so great.”
The Nix ends with a set-piece at the 1968 Democratic convention, and the plot is too contrived and dumb to spoil (there is a ghost). Such literary gimmicks distract as Hill watches the disorder for small moments of noticing and sympathy. The manhole covers are tarred shut. Old Cronkite wants to tell his audience “that the reality they are seeing on television is not reality,” but can’t. Men in suits watch the riots through “a smear of blood and grease” on a bar’s plate-glass window, desensitized and staring with “no expression at all.”
Stripped of the pyrotechny and dfw-style overstimulation, the core of The Nix is a moving story about damaged people who are preoccupied with their past, by how they might have decided differently, who want to go back and recapture something ineffable they had and lost. Samuel at the outset is “experiencing his life at a one-step remove, as if he’s not leading his life but rather assessing and appraising a life that weirdly, unfortunately, happens to be his.” They’re nostalgic for a time when they can’t remember what they are supposed to be nostalgic about. By the end, each comes upon a reckoning, and Samuel understands that his choices are irrevocable, life is contingent, and while the past is fixed, the future can change by making different choices. Another phrase for such an epiphany is “growing up,” and, while it might sound banal, or like an easy life lesson, some people never do.
Many such people populate the pages of Greg Jackson’s Prodigals, a sharp and funny eight-story collection about yesterday’s youth, now in their thirties, of an elite caste. The downside of growing up is becoming an adult, and in the parable of the prodigal son, an heir wastes his fortune on extravagance and is forgiven by his father. While everyone is lost in Prodigals, no one is found.
In “Wagner in the Desert,” a group of ultra-educated and nominally successful friends gather in Palm Springs for a last weekend of angst, drug taking, and hyper-self-awareness. One of the couples wants to have a baby and wants “to do every last thing that a baby precludes, every last irresponsible thing,” and thus, “we did blow off the keys to ecologically responsible cars. . . . We spent our hot December afternoons next to the custom saltwater pool or below the parasols of palm fronds, waiting, I suppose, to feel at peace, to baptize our minds in an enforced nullity, to return to a place from which we could begin again.”
The narrator wants to write something that will change the world, but he can’t avoid his cognizance of how ridiculous his goal sounds. These children of privilege are trying to understand the power of meaning and craft a life that matters, and though they’re unsettled by their advantages, they’re not perturbed enough to not be comfortable. The friends indulge and order carbon-intensive steaks: “It was a very special dinner, courtesy of the Maldives, Bangladesh, Venice.” They’ve been told they’re special all their lives, but special isn’t the same as elusive happiness, and maybe special isn’t even special.
“We’ve all been taught, right, every last one of us, that we have some unique something to offer up to the world. But c’mon. Let’s be real,” says a character in “Serve-and-Volley, Near Vichy,” about a husband and wife who visit the French country house of a once-famous tennis star who is convinced he does not exist. A divorcee in “Epithalamium” tries to mri what went wrong with her marriage and contemplates “the terrifying possibility, absent the correlative of another person, that you were not at all the composite of your past, but merely the confused nerves of the present, ever-supplanting moment.”
Not much happens besides mood and atmosphere in Prodigals. Jackson isn’t asking readers to like these people, really, or to relate to this generational cohort, or a fragment of this generational cohort, to the extent a generation is a valuable concept. He is trying to understand them, and himself, with sociological and psychological precision. In large part he succeeds: “We listened to U2 and Morrissey and Kylie Minogue post-
ironically, which is not to say, exactly, sincerely. We donated to charity, served on the boards of not-for-profits, and shepherded socially responsible enterprises for work. We were not bad people, we thought. Not the best, a bit spoiled, maybe, but pleasant, insouciantly decent.” Keep telling yourself that.
If there’s no alternative, there’s no problem,” to borrow one of James Burnham’s famous maxims. But the hard question is often determining whether there is an alternative or not. Lacking a time machine, the kids in The Nix and Prodigals realize that they can’t relive the past, and so there is no problem. One theme of Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad is that people can create their own alternatives where none seem to exist, even when the oppression is far more substantial than the micro-aggressions Laura Pottsdam or Evie Boyd ever suffered.
Whitehead is an author of great imaginative power, and he always approaches his subject slant-wise to subvert received traditions and make an original, lasting contribution. Here the subject is America’s original sin, the antebellum market for human beings, and he adopts the unadorned and impassive register of the nineteenth-century captivity narrative after Harriet Jacobs, Frederick Douglass, and William Wells Brown. But Whitehead abstracts slavery to defamiliarize the imprint of history: he proposes that the clandestine network of abolitionists, freemen, and safe houses that smuggled slaves to the north was a literal underground railroad, with locomotives, conductors, stations, and tracks. The conceit ought to be twee and trivializing—a thread of online reviews complain about the novel’s historical inaccuracies—but the effect is rather the opposite. By transforming a metaphor into a real entity in space and time, Whitehead reminds us that a metaphor never rescued a single runaway. People did, slaves and conductors, black and white, at great personal risk to their own lives, out of a demand for liberty or out of conscience. They worked together to begin to free a people.
Call it the fracture of the outsider’s gaze, but the mass atrocity of chattel slavery is exposed with awful terror. In The Underground Railroad, the heroine, a teenage girl named Cora, had one owner who “eventually lost her, three other slaves, and two hogs in a game of whist.” A master teaches a slave to recite the Declaration of Independence, but when he invites visitors to witness the performance, he is mildly irritated to learn that an overseer has beaten the man to death. Cora ducks into a barn and finds “a morbid inventory of manacles and fetters,” with some shackles specifically forged for the limbs of children.
The Underground Railroad is an inevitably grim novel, and not an easy read.
Above all there is the saturation of the peculiar institution, by the 1860s more than 200 years old, into the whole of culture: Cora’s Georgian plantation “had the always-quality of the hills to the west, of the creek that bisected the property.” It “radiated permanence and in turn summoned timeless feelings,” namely, “Know your value and you know your place in the order. To escape the boundary of the plantation was to escape the fundamental principles of your existence: impossible.”
Cora does become a fugitive from her enslavement, pursued by a slave catcher called Randall, “like a thunderhead that seems far away but then is suddenly overhead with loud violence.” She travels in the picaresque manner of a Huckleberry Finn, with menace never far behind, to South Carolina, Tennessee, Indiana, and the north, each state belonging to the known world but counterfactually off—an alternative-history America. These estrangements, like the railroad conceit, convert these episodes in allegories of the varieties of the slave experience and draw their genealogies well beyond the Civil War.
The Underground Railroad is a grim novel, an inevitably grim novel, and not an easy read. A station agent tells Cora, “If you want to see what this nation is all about, I always say, you have to ride the rails. Look outside as you speed through, and you’ll find the true face of America.” Of course, since the line is subterranean, all she can see is the darkness.
Yet if Whitehead confronts the tensions of a nation founded on the promise of independence that held millions in bondage, he redeems the despair with the American capacity for change and reinvention. A black preacher calls Jefferson’s immortal words of 1776 a delusion but concludes, “Sometimes a useful delusion is better than a useless truth.” Cora thinks: “Versifying left her cold. Poems were too close to prayer, rousing regrettable passions. Waiting for God to rescue you when it was up to you.” In other words, someone who has never known freedom could only seek its passage, and challenge the impossible, through a fusion of solidarity, perseverance, and valor.
Whitehead keeps returning to the image of the underground railroad itself, an engineering wonder that becomes a salvific symbol of the labor, conflict, organization, and time necessary to defeat tyranny. Cora first descends to the platform, and “The black mouths of the gigantic tunnel opened at either end. It must have been twenty feet tall, walls lined with dark and light colored stones in an alternating pattern. The sheer industry that had made such a project possible. . . . The tunnel pulled at her. How many hands had it required to make this place?”
“Who built it?” Cora asks. “Who builds anything in this country?” the station agent replies. The railroad, then, no less than Cora’s exfiltration from the South and emancipation, is testimony to individual moral agency: there is an alternative, if you build one.