Impressions // Marlena by Julie Buntin and The Girls by Emma Cline
Reading books in really quick succession can sometimes be a pretty disorientating experience. Characters get muddled, plots seem to bleed in to one another in a weirdly seamless way, and ultimately I’m left wondering, just for a moment, why the characters of a book set in the 1960s have inexplicably acquired flip phones and Hotmail accounts. This was almost precisely the case with two books I recently came across, Emma Cline’s The Girls, and Julie Buntin’s Marlena. This isn’t to detract, as all, from each novel’s originality – I found them both supremely engaging, and, to be totally honest, incredibly moving. But what struck me was that despite their vastly disparate settings and the vastly different means with which they deal with their central themes, the themes themselves are very similar; the absent and unreliable father, the single mother trying to realign her own sense of self after a messy divorce, the solitary girl seeking some form of approval from, and sense of belonging in, the inhospitable social world in which she moves. In all, both texts capture, incredibly beautifully, the sheer intensity of young female friendship, as well as awkwardness and the painfully self-conscious nature of female adolescence, arrested as it is by the intimidating gaze the men around them.
The story of The Girls is loosely based on the crimes committed by the infamous Manson ‘family’, a set of circumstances that I decided a while ago I’m unwilling to even research, in part because I find the grim fascination with which we tend to obsess over this sort of bloody true crime story quite, well, grim. I am not interested in the nonsensical ideology Manson used to justify his crimes, nor am I interested in who he really was/is beneath his egotism and his incoherent ramblings.
But the other reason I don’t think it’s worth exploring the factual basis of the series of events in the novel is that I actually don’t think it’s quite as central to the story as I’d initially assumed, having only read the blurb. The Girls is not about how the gruesome murders were executed, and even less about its Charles Manson figure, Russell Hadrick. In fact, while so many stories and documentaries on this subject will focus more on the men responsible for these crimes, often carelessly granting them just the sort of lionisation they desired in the first place, the men themselves are background fixtures in Cline’s novel, and Russell’s appearance, really, is something of an anti-climax. Just as I don’t care what makes Charles Manson tick, Evie is essentially indifferent to Russell and his insistence that he is destined to be a famous rock star. Unlike the other girls on the ranch who are utterly captivated by their cult leader, she manages to retain a certain degree of distance from him, her interest instead focusing on the mysteriously alluring Suzanne, who is dumpster diving for still edible food when Evie first clocks her.
The first thing about The Girls that stood out, from the very first page, was the language itself. Although I found that the writing did, occasionally, fall slightly flat for me as she’s almost overtaken by the pretentiousness of some of her metaphors (what exactly is the ‘sweet drone of honeysuckle’, and what is a ‘bellow of iron’? maybe I’m just being too picky), Cline has an incredible writing style, so rich with simile and metaphor that it’s paradoxical that she’s able to describe so intensely the mood and the feeling and the textures of a single moment with such economy of language. What appear to be incomplete, dislocated sentences capture, like photographic snapshots, the minute details of any event as little prompts in Evie’s own stream-of-consciousness: ‘Suzanne rested her hand on the seat between us. The familiar sight stirred me, remembering how she’d grabbed for me in Mitch’s bed. The spotty surface of her nails, brittle from poor diet.’ Her writing is a dazzling expression of the sensitive, penetrating imagination of 14 year old Evie.
Although I mentioned that the men in the novel occupy the peripheral space of the novel, their looming presence still suffocates Evie’s development, demanding her acquiescence. Her whole life is ‘attuned’ to attention; every outfit, every physical action, every facial expression carefully choreographed to get her noticed. It’s interesting that, as I said, the focus is female friendship, but again, these friendships are so clearly governed by the need to gain approval and acceptance from the men and boys around them. She writes: ‘I didn’t really believe that friendship could be an end in itself, not just the background fuzz to the dramatics of boys loving you or not loving you.’ From her school friend, Connie, with whom she spends her summers listening to schmaltzy 45s, concocting miracle face masks and trying out all manner of absurd beauty fads in desperate attempts to set themselves apart from the other girls, to Suzanne, for whom she begins stealing money from her mother’s purse, shoplifting food and other household essentials, all of it has men at the centre.
So perhaps the question, really, ought to be, is it any wonder? Thinkpiece after thinkpiece has been written, speculating on how and why such otherwise good young girls could ever get caught up in something so violent, so wrong, and so stereotypically male. But really the answer was there, all along. ‘How vacant I’d felt […] when no one needed to look at me anymore. I waited to be told what was good about me. I wondered later if that was why there were so many more women than men at the ranch.’ In other words, the lessons drilled into girls by parents, magazine articles, by society – the way girls like Evie were brought up marks them out, priming them for susceptibility to people like Russell.
Like The Girls, Marlena has non-linear plotline in which we alternate between the memory and their current life, and, like The Girls the narrator’s remembrance of her story is initially triggered by someone in the present day. In Cat’s instance, Marlena’s younger brother, Sal, with whom she’s had no contact since Marlena’s death, reaches out to her several decades later, apparently seeking some sort of closure to the events that transformed his childhood.
The thing that really recalled Cline’s book as I was reading Marlena to begin with is that, from the very opening of the novel, we already know what will happen. It’s not a plot twist or a spoiler for me to say, now, that Evie in The Girls joins a cult which will ultimately be responsible for several murders, or that Cat’s best friend Marlena is caught up in a world of substance abuse and found dead within a year of their meeting. For me, that’s one of the great achievements of Buntin’s novel, because none of this divests the story of any suspense; we are told within the first few pages what’s going to happen to Marlena, but, again, Marlena’s death is not necessarily the “point” of the book.
Admittedly, I found the format, flitting between past and present, frustrating and a little bit choppy at first because I found myself more invested in the time Cat did get to spend with Marlena, but as the story progressed, I think setting aside space for Cat’s retrospection is one of the novel’s greatest strengths. The benefit of hindsight does a lot of things to/for Cat. That she’s in a position to exercise it at all while Marlena can’t is enough to prompt the sort of survivor’s guilt that’s contributed to her drinking problem. But it also maps the progress of her own realisation that what they had together might not necessarily have lasted at all, that people outgrow each other and move on to live other lives.
In an essay Buntin wrote for The Atlantic, entitled ‘She’s Still Dying on Facebook’, she tells of her best friend Lea, who died from substance abuse related liver failure in her early twenties. Buntin writes, ‘at the height of our friendship, I matched her drink for drink, inhale for inhale,’ but, even then, she knew that ‘this was the stuff of my wayward youth, and that I’d outgrow it.’ In this sense, Marlena is sort of the fictional incarnation of Lea; Cat’s readiness to follow Marlena emboldens both of them in their exploits, but ultimately Cat has a network of other interests, desires, ambitions within reach that will one day take precedence over this teenage hedonism. Marlena’s circumstances don’t give her a chance to realise hers. As Buntin writes in her essay: ‘if I’d had a little less luck and she’s had a little more – how would this story go?’ And that’s the point, isn’t it? That, like Evie Boyd, Cat’s involvement in this world is characterised by its transience; she knew this was never going to be permanent, and that ultimately, she can sink back into her familiar, comforting space, a luxury her friend is never granted.
For all Marlena and Cat’s closeness, Marlena is ultimately unknowable, just like The Girls’ Suzanne. Cat is fully conscious of the narrative of Marlena that she’s presenting, and she recognises our tendency to canonise the people no longer with us as if their faults never existed, but she is quick to check that tendency, to point to it: ‘Why do I keep doing this? Making her out to be more than she was, grander, omniscient even, lovely and unreal.’ ‘Sometimes I feel like she is my invention,’ she writes, ‘like the more I say, the further from the truth of her I get.’ And that’s the nature of remembrance. The further away you move from an irretrievable memory or person, the more you are forced to create, to fill gaps, to consolidate what you think you knew, to imagine what could have been but never was.
You should read these books.