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The Power Of Seeing, And Being Seen, In 'The Girls'

Emma Cline's thoroughly seductive debut novel, The Girls, re-imagines the world of Charles Manson's female followers, and does so with a particularly effective literary device. The concept of the male gaze is well established, but Cline employs what can only be termed the female gaze as an entry into the helter-skelter life of her protagonist.

Names and circumstances are changed, events are relocated from Los Angeles to the Bay area, but the reality bleeds through the fiction. Three young women gather like a coven of witches on the beautiful green lawn of a park in Northern California. They have a voyeur spying on them, 14-year-old Evie Boyd, yearning, during that long hot summer of 1969, to bust loose from her boring suburban life in Petaluma.

"I studied the girls with a shameless, blatant gape," adult Evie narrates, looking back at this turning point moment in her young life. "These long-haired girls seemed to glide above all that was happening around them, tragic and separate. Like royalty in exile." One among the coven particularly attracts the aching adolescent, a statuesque siren who playfully, raunchily pulls down the neckline of her peasant dress to reveal a "cherry" red nipple.

That's it for Evie, and that's it for the reader, too, as we are captured by Cline's haunting creation as surely as the real Patricia Krenwinkel, Leslie Van Houten, and Susan Atkins fell under a madman's spell. I recall a photo that frightened me at the time: The Manson followers on their way to trial, with their Breck-girl hair, smug smiles and oh, yes — the X's self-carved into each forehead. The girls next door gone mad. Could it happen to me? Could I kill?

Evie follows her exotic new girl-crushes, sneaking behind them as they dumpster dive, watching them climb into a black-painted school bus. She is transfixed. Cline homes in on the ways women observe each other and are in turn observed. Evie's voyeuristic longing flips back upon itself: She desires to be really, truly seen by the other girls, especially by the raven-haired Suzanne. "Attuned to attention," Evie lusts for Suzanne and feels sheepish about her lust. The cult goddess displays "the gaudy, prickling tease that was almost the same thing as beauty." Then Cline adds the money shot: "And what had the girl seen when she looked at me?"

Readers will down Cline's spooky, twisted narrative in a gulp, and then they'll go off to bed with the lights on.

It was a potent pathology of the 1960s, the idea that the middle class life was soulless, empty, and worthy only of mockery, that all the groovy stuff was happening elsewhere, in the Haight, on Spahn ranch, somewhere, anywhere that was away from parents. Evie's mother and father are squares pathetically trying to be hip. Before she falls in with the girls, Evie's biggest thrill is licking batteries "to feel a metallic jolt on the tongue, rumored to be one-eighteenth of an orgasm." That changes when she follows Suzanne to a hot, dusty commune with a messianic leader, a "genius" in a leather shirt named Russell. She is not put off by the unsupervised toddlers running around with full diapers, or the skinny dogs, or the lurking bikers, or by the servile relationships the other women have with Russell.

Just as the real Manson did, Cline's cult-leader has musical aspirations. In The Girls, Russell is vying for a record deal; echoes of the relationship between Manson and Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys ring throughout the novel. The female acolytes make tasteless soup and switch places as Russell's bedmates. Evie, a virgin, inevitably has her turn. "Russell sees every part of you," a follower tells her, and Evie desperately wants to believe it could be true. The others treat her like "their new toy." The new toy thrives on the attention.

And murder? We receive hints of what will happen later, as the adult narrator begins to use the word but doesn't yet describe the impending holocaust of blood. Cline delicately moves the 14-year-old protagonist offstage and out of the Family before the frenzy of killing. Though the long-withheld climax chilled me, the less physically violent sections of the novel disturbed me much more. The Girls promises to be the novel of the summer, with good reason. Readers will down Cline's spooky, twisted narrative in a gulp, and then they'll go off to bed with the lights on.

Jean Zimmerman's latest novel, Savage Girl, is out now in paperback. She posts daily at Blog Cabin.

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Jean Zimmerman