“There is no home here,” wrote the novelist and Golden State transplant Christopher Isherwood of his adopted home. Although he was referring to the state’s disparate and motley terrain, the comment unpacks a larger idea: California is a dreamland of opportunity and natural beauty, but it is ungrounded. It’s an Eden in which to lose oneself forever, a place that inspired thousands to leave their homes and pan its rivers for the possibility of gold, a place where people arrive to this day with nothing more than a loosely sketched note in their iPhone titled “App Idea.”
Isherwood’s observation is echoed, literally, in the opening pages of Emma Cline’s chilling and perceptive debut novel, The Girls. We find Evie Boyd, later in life, “caught in a house that was not my own.” Survivor of a murderous, Manson Family-esque sect within the burgeoning free love movement, Evie now wanders through a seemingly ordinary Northern Californian existence, a restless incarnation of the girl she once was, like so many other ghosts of a dream called the ’60s.
Flash back to the blissed out summer of 1969, to Evie’s upbringing at her mother’s, the first of many homes not her own. By this point, her father has taken off to Palo Alto with his assistant, a pleasant, pretty younger woman who’s willingness to “accept the world happily” contrasts sharply with the world Evie will become embroiled in. Evie’s mother is absent even when she’s there (“swanning around the house like a stranger”), distracted by the parade of men she brings in and out of Evie’s young life. Evie bounces around schools, friends. She’s a conscientious soul, lonesome, aimless, and searching for belonging.
That is, until she meets Suzanne, an alluring, dumpster-diving ex-dancer who comes in and out of town on a mysterious black bus. The two quickly form a bond. Through Suzanne she meets the girls, a small tribe of dropouts, dreamers, and Haight Street runaways clad in ragged castoffs—equal parts Dickens and Merry Prankster. Through the girls she meets Russell, the charismatic vagabond turned quasi-mystic leader of the girls’ cultish NorCal ranch. The ranch, with its roaming, underfed dogs, poor sanitation, and tripped out drifters, should be alarming, but its decrepitude casts a spell on Evie. It’s a place outside of conventional society, where all seems permissible and free. Within these magical boundaries its adherents do their best to gleefully inhabit the world with the unrepentant hedonism of a Bosch panel.
Like Manson, Russell is a failed musician—or, more accurately, and worse, a mediocre one. But Russell provides the answers that his devotees desperately want to hear. “It’s like a natural high, being around him,” says one of the girls, “like the sun or something”. He also sleeps with them, the girls. Cline’s gift for emotional simile helps track the vulnerabilities and uncertainties of these early, and often transient, sexual encounters: Evie’s “queasy rush” at the first hint of carnal subtext at the ranch; the fatigue in her arms after being pushed, by Russell, into an embarrassing ménage-à-trois with Mitch, Russell’s music industry contact. Mitch is a composite of the California Sound insiders that the real-life Manson crossed paths with, like Terry Melcher, Gregg Jakobsen, or The Beach Boys’ Dennis Wilson.
Cline thrives in these small moments, the messy flotsam of lives, the poetic, understated details in a story that could easily be marketed as a blockbuster thriller: “fog dripping audibly from the eucalyptus leaves”; “ghosts of grease” left on a wineglass; Russell’s interest in Evie described as “a quick tightening of ribbon”. The Girls’ most radical and rewarding formal innovation may be its efforts to slow down, hang out, observe.
Within its sensational plot is a dramatic binary of Girls vs. Boys. For “the boys” of the ranch, the attraction to Russell is similar, but different. Russell enables them to star as the bruised and brave hero of the acid-western already playing in their heads. The Girls contains a lively feminist edge. In Cline’s astute and multifaceted characterizations, the girls navigate a society where even the most supposedly “enlightened” of their male peers are still capable of looks like the one that Mitch gives Evie at the ranch: “that immediate parceling of value.” Without any moralistic finger-pointing, we see the humanity of these flawed, female comrades. Like anyone else, they may not know what they want, and they’re prone to frustrating emotions and irreparable mistakes.
Much of the novel plays out like a coming-of-age story, tracking Evie’s journey of discovery and growth into the world. At times I nearly forgot the sinister undercurrents charging each scene. Even a trespassing of a neighbors’ empty home seems less the workings of a murderous hive mind and more an obnoxious milestone of bored, adolescent delinquency. Yet foreboding hangs like a Zeppelin of rank pot smoke. Evie’s sober, reflective recount is layered with warnings, disturbing foreshadowings, crime scene photos and salacious rumors learned after-the-fact. It was the end of the ’60s, after all. The good vibes had soured. The trip turned darker, stranger. The drugs, harder. Almost overnight everyone was all freaked, fried, zonked, and paranoid. Russell’s dubious record deal falls through. Things turn violent. The helter-skelter begins.
If you know the Manson story, you may know what’s coming next. Even if you don’t, you can tell where it’s headed, although Cline does a marvelous job of maintaining suspense in the face of narrative inevitability. Like Evie, we want to believe that everything will be OK, even when that belief crosses into self-delusion—a mechanism that sustains Evie’s willingness to overlook the squalor and dangers of the ranch. The girls want to believe the greater good in their shambolic utopia. They want to believe that Russell is the sick-healing, animal-whispering messiah that he makes himself out to be. They want to believe that opting out of the “straight world” is an act of radical love.
The ranch proved that you could live at a rarer pitch. That you could push past these petty human frailties and into a greater love. I believed in the way of adolescents, in the absolute correctness and superiority of my love.
In the end, ego nullifies the redemptive power of love. Though perhaps that’s too reductive. Perhaps, as Evie puts it, it’s a California thing.