Sunday, October 30, 2016

The Ragged Edges of the Night

The night began to show ragged edges ...

The Girls by Emma Cline (Random House, 2016) 355 pages

Thank you Vincent Bugliosi, the attorney who successfully prosecuted Charles Manson and the Manson gang for the Tate/LaBianca murders of August 1969. He wrote the seminal non-fiction account of the murders, Helter Skelter, which was responsible for my life long aversion to all things hippie at the tender age of fifteen. And thank you Ms. Cline for reinforcing this very healthy fear with this new work of fiction.  

Cline evokes - I almost said beautifully but that seems an odd choice of words - the atmosphere which leads to the ensnarement of the fictional fourteen year old Evie into a Manson-like cult in southern California in the late 1960s. It is a chilling record of the tail end of the 1960s dream of freedom and liberation from convention, now, turned nightmare with the Manson murders.

Told from the perspective of the a middle-aged Evie, Cline poignantly portrays the fear and insecurities of the young teen faced with two self-absorbed, now divorced parents (dad makes off with his nubile assistant Tamar while mom is enamoured with a "gold miner" looking for financial assistance). But it is not only those circumstances. Evie is privy to the anxieties that many young girls experience (Am I pretty? When will I find someone? Why doesn't he like me?) and is eminently exploitable by outside forces. 

Wisely, Cline waits until hundred pages into the novel to introduce us to the members of the cult which gives her ample time to develop the character of Evie. She becomes drawn into the cult because she is lonely, pretty but unsure of it, and perceived as valuable to Russell - the fictional stand in for Manson. She also comes from an affluent family with a beautiful grandmother who was once a famous Hollywood star. Initially, she is not seduced by Russell but by the ragtag, barefoot hippie girls who troll the city in a mysterious black bus scavenging for food in dumpsters and likely also searching for susceptible young girls to join its commune. Evie is enraptured by the black haired, imperious Suzanne (representing one may safely assume Susan Atkins, one of the key Manson "girls", known as sexy "Sadie" by the Manson family) but she is inevitably seduced by Russell himself. 
My glitchy adolescent brain was desperate for casualties, for conspiracies that drenched every word, every gesture, with meaning. I wanted Russell to be a genius. 
Slowly, inexorably,  Evie is drawn into Russell's web largely because of her attraction to Suzanne which she barely seems conscious of. "Eve", Russell murmurs seductively. "the first woman." Roped into disturbing sex acts with Russell (as all the Manson girls are) Evie consoles herself that at least it wasn't coitus. 

She lies to her mother saying that she is sleeping at her (now ex) best friend Connie's house when she is at the ranch where Suzanne and the others live in shared squalor and a dripping disdain for the "pigs" (straight, conventional, non-hippies) whom they steal from, exploit and terrorize at Russell's command. She steals money from her mother and a neighbor and starts to assume the garb of the drugged out, teenage hippies with ne'er a word from her mother who is absorbed in her latest futile romance.

She is persuaded to have a threesome with the flailing rock star Mitch (who may represent the lost Beach Boy Dennis Wilson or the record producer Terry Melcher both of whom had ties to the Manson cult, Wilson much more so than Melcher) and Suzanne against her better instincts. Later, retribution towards Mitch who has disappointed Russell goes terribly awry and leads to horrible acts of violence. 

Initially, I wondered why Cline had situated the older Evie in the midst of her old friend's home saddled with two teenagers - Evie's friend's son Julian and his girlfriend Sasha - but it becomes clear by the end when Julian coerces Sasha to expose herself in front of Evie. Cline wants to underline the fact that young girls are still susceptible to these same pressures and humiliations - just as Evie was as a young girl (and, by logical extension, the Manson girls). And Julian becomes an object of Evie's scrutiny too - how did the little boy whom she watched play in a school concert grow up to poison and kill a dog? What element was at work in the male species that summoned forth such hatred and vitriol? 

Emma Cline
Almost two thirds into the novel, Evie begins to understand the underlying evil of the ranch and its malformed inhabitants - like an unbearable and unsustainable frequency that hums beneath it all. 

By the end of the novel, we are meant to infer Suzanne's violence and savagery is a direct reaction to the humiliations she experiences at the hands of the cult and men in general - it's a dubious argument but plausible. Why else does Cline mention a humiliating date with an older man that Evie experiences as an example of the indignities that young girls endure - she links it directly to Suzanne's anger and the violence that she exhibits. However tempting this theory, many of us have experienced these episodes of violation and we have yet to participate in the savagery of the Manson murders. The causes of this atrocity are much more complex than that and are perhaps unknowable.

Mercifully, the actual murders depicted here are less explicit that you might imagine and its fictional victims are somewhat concealed to avoid perhaps the expected censure or recriminations from critics. I will leave it to the reader to determine the extent of Evie's participation in the murders. 

I am sure that the subject matter has put off many readers as well. I remember a colleague's withering look when I mentioned this book: "How could you read that?" he seemed to imply and I had my reservations before I started it too. 

Cline is careful to incorporate real details from the historical record: the cast of the Manson villains are easy to recognize in the narrative for the most part; the squalor and destitution of the Manson ranch is replicated such as the scavenging for food, the dispensing of LSD tabs like Eucharists by Manson, the ravings of the cult leader and complete control of the family members, the sexual exploitation of the teenage girls to ensnare valuable assets, the sexual and emotional humiliation of the girls to ensure their servitude; the exploitation of wealthy relations; the raids into the homes of their unsuspecting neighbors to "spook" and punish them presaging the violence to come ... Cline adheres to the smallest historical details such as the Manson girls eating and discarding watermelon rinds into the kitchen sink the night that Rosemary and Leno LaBianca were murdered or the stealing of Dennis Wilson's gold records. 

If I were to lodge a criticism of the novel it would be the slightly odd sentence structure which at first appears fresh and unique but soon annoys - sentences sometimes read like a series of subordinate clauses or sometimes lack verbs. But the descriptions are sharp and fresh and the insights into human behaviour nuanced.  This is a major talent in the making. 

Lest we forget, amidst the fascination with the cult members (for it is easy to be captivated by the strangeness and violence), who exactly they killed during the two nights of their rampage on August 8th and 9th, 1969: Abigail Folger, Wojciech Frykowski, Rosemary and Leno LaBianca, Stephen Parent, Jay Sebring, Sharon Tate and her unborn child.

The Manson girls at trial (left to right):
Susan "Sadie" Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, Lesley Van Houten
Note: As I read The Girls I was simultaneously listening to the enlightening ten part series "Charles Manson's Hollywood" on the podcast You Must Remember Thiscreated  and written by Katrina Longworth. It's a great audio companion piece to this book. 

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