Literary Review

That summer of ‘69

The Girls; Emma Cline, Chatto & Windus, Rs. 599.

The Girls; Emma Cline, Chatto & Windus, Rs. 599.  

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The book may be based on the life of messianic cult leader Charles Manson, but is really a coming-of-age story set to the tune of the slow death of the beat generation

A cursory Googling of ‘Charles Manson’ throws up some surprising results. That 41 years ago, on September 5, 1975, the then President of the U.S., arguably the most powerful man on the planet, survived an attempt on his life by a disciple of this psychopathic cult leader, in prison for life for masterminding the murders of nine people over a bloody, five-week spree in the summer of 1969. Or that earlier this year, at age 80, Manson broke off his engagement with a woman half a century his junior, because he believed she would exhibit his body after death to get rich!

That, despite spending nearly half a century in prison, Manson, the mad, messianic cult leader and icon of the dark side of the counter-culture revolution, continues to hold sway over American popular consciousness is indisputable.

It helps that the fires are stoked regularly by new revelations and fresh theories. Former Beach Boys lead singer David Love’s recently-released memoir recounts how a bandmate saw Manson kill someone with an automatic weapon, and of drug-filled orgies in California with members of the Manson cult. And the showbiz world is abuzz with the news that the latest season of cult TV drama American Horror Story will feature the Manson legend.

But perhaps the biggest stir of all has been caused by Emma Cline’s debut novel. In a deft reimagining of the events of that fraught summer, she manages to tap into the rich vein of public interest about the case, without, at any point, turning it into anything as mundane as a prurient reconstruction.

Instead, the story — in sometimes luminous, sometimes overwrought prose — traces the very ordinary life of Evie Boyd, a plain, painfully pubescent 14-year-old in small-town California, who spends her days yearning to be pretty, and experimenting on beauty treatments cut out from magazines with her best friend, while yearning to be noticed by the best friend’s older brother. Her life takes an extraordinary when she’s drawn to a bunch of hippie girls she runs into in the town park one day, and eventually trails them to the commune of the mesmeric Russell, a thinly-disguised Manson.

The tale is narrated by a middle-aged Evie — unmarried, colourless, almost-but-not-quite middle-class — an out-of-work live-in aide “tending to the in-between spaces of other people’s lives”, an invisible plain Jane in sexless clothes, her face “blurred with the pleasant, ambiguous expression of a lawn ornament.”

But the story is not about the ordinariness of the current life of the very ordinary Evie, but her extraordinary past and that extraordinary summer of ’69 that should have indelibly marked her for life, but somehow didn’t. That it doesn’t is probably thanks to Suzanne, whose appearance, for Evie, makes the day seem “tightly wound with synchronicity, the angle of sunlight newly weighted.”

The Girls may be based on the Manson legend, but Manson — Russell — isn’t central to the story. Instead, it is about Suzanne, the girl who tests, tempts and eventually recruits Evie into the commune, and who, in the end, saves her from it. Suzanne, black-haired, “as strange and raw as the flowers that bloom in lurid explosion once every five years, the gaudy, pricking tease that was almost the same thing as beauty”, the object of Evie’s painful girl crush, her downfall and, unexpectedly at the end, her saviour.

Although the book begins with demands from the obnoxious drug-runner son of middle-aged Evie’s former lover whose house she’s temporarily in, for all the gory details about the incident that earns the cult its footnote in history, the incident itself is tacked on almost in parenthesis. The Girls is not ‘faction’, a retelling of Manson’s oft-told tale.

Instead, it is a coming-of-age story and a worm’s eye view of the slow expiration of the beat generation and the last dregs of America’s counter-culture revolution of the 1960s gurgling down the sink of time all rolled into one. What is most striking about Cline’s reconstruction of that tumultuous period is the ordinariness of it all.

The flower girls glamourised in film and song turn out to be mostly bored kids from small towns, desperately trying not to be their parents. Life in the commune is malodorous with unwashed bodies, matted-haired babies running around with messy diapers, and long, drug-fuelled conversations, whose banality is converted to something extraordinary by the combination of chemically-altered perceptions and the participants’ own sense of differentness, a “violence in our aversion to real life.” It is all about “the moment”. Says Evie, “It seemed like something important, our desire to describe the shape of every second as it passed.”

In the end, for those of us who grew up in a world and time and culture alien to Evie’s world, it is this ordinariness that surprises, not the lifestyle or the orgy of violence in the end. It is not the evil which is shocking, but the sheer banality of it.

The Girls; Emma Cline, Chatto & Windus, Rs. 599.

R. Srinivasan is Editor, Business Line , and is unheathily fond of crime fiction.

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Printable version | Dec 16, 2019 12:13:30 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/That-summer-of-%E2%80%9869/article14630733.ece

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