THE GIRLS (2016)
By Emma Cline
Random House, 355 pages
Emma Cline pulls off a remarkable literary feat in The Girls: she makes us keep turning the pages though the story's ending is preordained and known. That's because it's based on the real-life 1969 Tate-LaBiana cult murders orchestrated by Charles Manson. Names are changed, dialogue is invented, and a 14-year-old protagonist is interjected, but Cline isn't trying to fool anyone; were this a movie, we'd call parts of it a shot-by-shot remake. Still, Cline's small shifts of focus give us tremendous insight into things such as cult recruiting, obsession, fatal attraction, and evil.
Cults have now undergone so much sociological analysis that their recruitment patterns are well known. Cult members approach those with outward signs of alienation–scruffy travelers, stressed students, street people, stoners, and loners. First befriend them, and then immerse them in the group through a technique known as "love bombing." Cline's victim is 14-year-old Evie Boyd, the product of a broken home who lives with her mother and her string of short-time inappropriate boyfriends. Add Ms. Cline's novel to those that eviscerate the soullessness of middle-class suburbia. Evie grew up in the shadow of the Hollywood sign, but now lives in the Bay Area 'burb of Petaluma, which was, in 1969, a few years behind the calendar on the Excitement Scale. Evie has little to do but ride her bike through the sterile town, parks, and environs. She can pretty much do as she wishes as she's always been a 'good' girl, and her mom is too ineffectual to question obvious lies or notice money lifted from her purse. In short, Evie is bored and lonely–her former BFF has moved on to others who share her emergent girly ideals.
In such a scenario, even rank dumpster divers can seem appealing–if draped in brightly colored garb and decked in headbands, costume jewelry, and sandals. Evie is especially drawn to Suzanne (who is patterned on Manson member Susan Adkins), on whom she develops a serious (and erotic) girl crush. Soon she is drawn into Suzanne's inner circle of women, all of whom serve Russell, the Svengali-like rooster around whom the flock swoons. The "girls" support him through theft, ego-stroking, cooking, attending to his sexual desires, and assuring him he's a musical genius who deserves support from hanger-on Mitch (patterned on Dennis Wilson) in his quest to release an LP. Evie is desperate to prove her worthiness to belong to a family that seems miles better than the one she has.
Cline is brilliant at getting inside the 14-year-old mind. You probably recoiled at the above paragraph but think of your 14-year-old self. Were you too craving any sort of acceptance? What would you have done to hold onto what you then identified as "love?" Cline takes us inside Evie's mind through memory scraps, small incidents, and sense impressions. At her best, Cline makes us smell the sourness of unwashed bodies, feel the stickiness of jism, and experience the frisson of living dangerously. Her style is a skillful reordering of stream-of-consciousness writing that is subtly structured for coherence's sake.
Cline tells Evie's story through the now-familiar technique of flashback/flash forward. We also meet middle-aged Evie, though her story is less compelling. This may be due to the fact that Cline was just 27 when she wrote this novel–which puts her closer to 14-year-old Evie than to a future woman carrying baggage a bit heavier than regret. (A curse?) This Evie forever bears the stigma of having been "one" of the women who knew the Monster, though her middle-aged self seems about as fearsome and forceful as a bag of Wonder Bread. She does provoke thought, though. How would any of us react decades later if we once flirted with something unspeakably awful? Speaking for myself, I sometimes wonder about youthful moments in which I weaved one way instead of another. How would my life today be different if I had made decision X instead of Y?
As for Ms. Cline's novel, there is a dramatic tonal shift when writing about middle-aged Evie. Is this verisimilitude, or inconsistency? I can't decide, but I will say that you will have a hard time putting down this book–even though you know the fate of Manson and his closest minions. Showing this through 14-year-old eyes is, I think, the closest we'll get to a new perspective on Manson. If it makes us more aware of how charlatans and demagogues recruit, that's all to the good. You can be forgiven, though, if you just find The Girls a compulsive read.