Emma Cline’s ‘The Girls’: A Story About Love, Rebellion, and Mass Murder

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Inspired by the Manson Family murders of 1969, Emma Cline’s debut novel The Girls (2016) is charged with the imminent threat of violent tragedy. “It begins with the Ford idling up the narrow drive, the sweet drone of honeysuckle thickening the August air.”  Because the story is based on familiar, not to mention legendary, events you feel that you know what is about to happen. Yet, because the names and places are changed, the story unfolds in a parallel universe in which the unexpected is possible. When will the mayhem erupt and how?

As we look at the world through the eyes of Evie Boyd, a mere fourteen years old, we see a town and a life of small horizons where navigating the heightened dramas of being a teenager is enough to fill entire summers. However, what begins as a coming-of-age story about a girl’s uneasy transition into young womanhood, which is complicated by her parents’ marriage dissolving, turns into a harrowing tale of teenage rebellion.

According to Cline, the motivation for The Girls was wanting to understand the forces that drove the very young women who followed Charles Manson to do so with such wild and murderous abandon. What Cline discovered was that, in Evie’s case, her gravitation to what were no more than vagrants squatting at a nearby farm had less to do with the charms of “Russell” and more to do with “Suzanne,” with whom Evie becomes immediately drawn to like a moth to a flame. As for Suzanne, her feelings for Evie seemed feigned at best, manipulative at worst, which often leaves Evie confused and longing for validation.  Meanwhile, Evie’s normal world of parents, friends, and high school becomes ever more ridiculous in her eyes.  Only when she is with Russell, his right-hand man Guy, Suzanne and the other girls, Donna, Roos, Helen, does she feel like she has a place.

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As her emotional dependence on Suzanne grows will Evie be compelled to partake in the heinous acts that you know are forthcoming?  At one level, The Girls is a compelling thriller in which you anticipate with each chapter that the plot to kill will emerge at any moment.  What will Evie do?  Will Suzanne betray her?  At another level, the book is about the lives of girls and women who pin their self-worth on the fate of a megalomaniac, Russell, whose scraggly bell-bottom aphorisms belie an insanely, not to mention violently, bitter heart. At still another level, which reveals more about me than about Cline’s novel, The Girls is about the inherent destructiveness of an American society that places more value on normality and materialism than on accepting ourselves and each other for all our imperfections.  For when we do not know what to do with our outcasts, then those outcasts grow to embody the unstable resentment that lies in the heart of our communities, waiting to either change the world or explode with devastation.

In the end, I was completely enthralled with Emma Cline’s writing.  Every sentence was a carefully crafted image.  Every paragraph a revelation.  Every chapter a gospel of godless truth.  Cline does not judge her characters, she reveals them.  Nor does Cline ask us to pity Evie, yet we feel her loneliness, naivety, moral core, and foolishness.  In the end, if The Girls is a coming-of-age story it is about how we all must grow to realize that the world is unpredictable, where people and the force of the times in which we live may topple our certainty in an instant.

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The Tale of Kissshot Acerolaorion Heartunderblade: Nisioisin’s ‘Kizumonogatari’

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I don’t know what it is about these characters and their story that I found so immediately engaging, but once I started Nisioisin’s Kizumonogatari: Wound Tale I kept wanting more. Not only did I finish the book over a long weekend, but also I sought out other incarnations of this vampiric world, which resulted in my discovery of the Monogatari Series, which is available on Hulu. As for the book under review, it was a recommendation—the kind that’s commonplace nowadays as our “likes” and purchases are constantly tracked—which I responded to proactively for two simple reasons. One, I really liked the vibe that the cover illustration and design gave off. Vofan’s rendering of the polysyllabically named blonde vampire was especially enticing. Second, I had read Nisioisin’s 2008 Del Rey light novel edition of xxxHolic, which I enjoyed as a worthy addition to the anime and manga series. Nisioisin, of course, also did a light novel of the Death Note series, also in 2008, which VIZ Media published. In light of these two factors, plus knowing that Kizumonogatari was being released in January 2016 as a feature-length anime movie, I couldn’t wait to dive in.

What I read more than satisfied my need for a brisk and entertaining story about awkward teens confronted with the extraordinary situation of having to reluctantly aide a vampire named Kissshot Acerolaorion Heartunderblade, who’s dealing with an existential crisis and the threat of three formidable vampire hunters. Koyomi Araragi, a geeky teen on spring break, unexpectedly finds himself working as Kissshot’s “thrall” after finding her limbless and helpless. Allowing himself to be bitten, Araragi becomes a “half-vampire” with unusual powers, which he needs when battling Dramaturgy, Episode, and Guillotine Cutter. At stake are the reclamation of Heartunderblade’s missing extremeties and the restoration of Araragi’s humanity. Complicating Araragi’s quests is Mèmè Oshino, a middle-aged man of mysterious origins who lives in an abandoned cram school, and who periodically avails himself to Araragi with help and information, in addition to having something of a history with Heartunderblade. Less mysterious but no less threatening to Araragi’s self-esteem is Tsubasa Hanekawa, his buxom classmate, who’s described as a “model student among model students, a class president among class presidents.” She’s also Araragi’s only friend, both intelligent and charming in equal measures, who will later play a critical role in enabling her reticently heroic friend at fulfilling his destiny. In the end, as long as you’re a fan of light novels based on anime and manga characters—which are the equivalent of the tie-in novels featuring Marvel and DC Comics characters—and aren’t expecting some kind of Haruki Murakami-Anne Rice hybridization, then you’ll more than likely enjoy Kizumonogatari: Wound Tale. It’s perfect for when you get some time-off or need something to titillate your imagination.

Photo credit: David Martínez

The Many Faces of Sadako: ‘Ringu 2’ and ‘Spiral’

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One of the perennial questions of cinema is which is better the movie or the book? Depending on the author, director, and story, the debate over which form is most satisfying—text or moving image—is the stuff of late night conversations and elaborate essays. Be it the Harry Potter series, Stephen King’s The Shining, or classics like Anna Karenina, The Great Gatsby, and Dracula, opinions abound as to which produced the superior story. Then, there are those who think that one should not even engage in such matters in the first place, pointing out the fundamental differences and, hence, the incomparable attributes of book and film. Each format is a unique experience unto itself—as different as admiring a still life painting of breads and fruits in a gallery is from indulging in a hearty meal of apples, pears, and a freshly baked loaf.

However, what happens when, in the case of a sequel, the book and the movie bare very little resemblance to one another? For Ringu, which Koji Suzuki published in 1991 and Hideo Nakata turned into a 1998 movie, the respective sequels are even more divergent than their originals. In 1995 Suzuki renewed Sadako Yamamura’s curse in Spiral, which is about Ando Mitsuo, a coroner, and his effort at solving the mystery behind his old college friend’s death, Ryūji Takayama, a logician of great repute. Ando’s investigation soon leads him to Mai Takano, Ryūji’s student and paramour, who inexplicably disappears when she and Ando were to meet for dinner. Ando, aside from feeling drawn to Mai, wanted her help with understanding how Ryūji died. In particular, he wanted to comprehend his friend’s sudden heart attack, the evidence of smallpox found during his autopsy, and the coded message uncovered in a suture, which had been deciphered as “mutation.” Because of Mai’s disappearance, Ando is compelled into the world created by Sadako and the curse recorded on the infamous videotape.

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When Nakata released Ringu 2 in 1999, he took the story of Sadako’s legacy in a completely different direction. While some characters are retained from the book series, others, most importantly Ando, are nowhere to be seen. In fact, whereas Mai Takano vanishes early in the story told in Spiral, she is the main character in the movie sequel. Played by Miki Nakatani, “Mai Takano” is the one searching for answers about Ryūji’s death, which leads her to a reporter, “Okazaki” (Yûrei Yanagi), who is looking for someone who has seen the now legendary tape. Okazaki’s own quest connects him with a young girl, “Kanae Sawaguchi” (Kyoko Fukuda), who knows others who have seen the tape. Okazaki asks Kanae if she can get him a copy of the tape, which she agrees to do. Upon delivering the copy to Okazaki, Kanae tells him that she has now viewed its content and is visibly shaken. Kanae wants Okazaki to promise her that he will watch the video for fear for her life. Okazaki promises, only be seen depositing the tape in his desk draw, clearly with no immediate intention of viewing it.

As for Sadako, she manifests herself in very different ways in each version of her story. In Spiral she makes a subtle yet effective appearance into Ando’s life, leading him into a dilemma that may mean either the recovery of someone irreplaceably dear to him or humanity’s extinction. The curse embodied in the video is acting like virus, like smallpox, and it is up to Ando to find a way of eradicating this menace to human existence. However, what will he do when given the opportunity to atone for an incredible guilt that destroyed his heart and family? In Ringu 2, Sadako’s presence is felt throughout the movie, as a wandering ghost and as a paranormal psychotic whose anger extends from the well in which she perished to the mental hospital, where “Dr Kawajiri” (Fumio Kohinato) will attempt to purge her from the minds she has afflicted with her curse using an experiment he has devised based on his theory of energy transference.

In both stories, Spiral and Ringu 2, Suzuki and Nakata demonstrate the narrative richness of Sadako’s story of abnormal psychic ability and the consequences of her tragic rape and murder. With the latter in mind, Sadako is a literary icon of abused and missing girls and women. She is more than a ghost story, she is the face of anger at a patriarchal society that saw her psychic abilities as abnormal, calling her a “freak,” while her beauty exposed her to the insipid yearnings of men who only sought to exploit her vulnerability. The real terror, then, is not Sadako but the predatory nature of the male psyche, when it is allowed to objectify women without fear of condemnation.

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The Origin of War: Byron Preiss and J Michael Reaves’ ‘Dragonworld’

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I first became aware of Preiss and Reaves’ Dragonworld when I saw it featured in the August 1979 issue of Heavy Metal Magazine, which was the same periodical that introduced me to Terry Brooks’ The Sword of Shannara. Similar to Shannara, what captivated my imagination much more than the story were the illustrations. In the case of Dragonworld, Joseph Zucker was the source of my escape into this world of legendary monsters. I stared at these images for hours, copying them in my sketchbook. I wanted nothing less than to completely immerse myself in this world. As for the epic narrative that Zucker illustrated, Preiss and Reaves’ collaboration would have to wait decades for me to finally turn the page on the first chapter and begin reading. I have always read a great deal, however, for some reason certain books simply have to wait until it is their time to be read.  With respect to Dragonworld, that time was recently, thirty-six years after Bantam Books published this title in September 1979.

Dragonworld did not disappoint my expectations, neither as a seasoned reader nor as someone who recalls his original adolescent fascination with this work. At first, the story suggests a boy’s tale of exploit, as a child character Johan “borrows” Amsel’s “wing,” which Zucker portrays as a Da Vinci-inspired hang-glider, and launches himself off a sea cliff. Tragically, Johan meets his end, which sends his father, Jondalrun, into the throes of agony and despair. Even more unfortunate is when Jondalrun lets his gut-wrenching grief guide his conscience, which leads him to blame Amsel for his son’s “murder.” Soon, because Amsel if from a different people than Jondalrun, a grieving father’s need to blame someone for his child’s death eventually turns into a desire for vengeance, which grows into Fandora organizing an invasion of Simbala. It is at this juncture in the narrative when Preiss and Reaves’ turn their adventure into a parable about the futility of war.

As for the dragons, their stories, including the Last Dragon and coldrakes, are more than legend—they are the creatures that once ruled the land and their stories are part of the natural history of Dragonworld. However, dragon and coldrake alike have been driven to near extinction, turning their fragile existence into the stuff of myth and misunderstanding. Yet, the true story of their tragic lives possesses the key to settling the upheaval devastating Fandora and Simbala, which is contingent upon comprehending how to restore the land to balance, so that dragon, coldrakes, and humans may live in peace. Complete with Arthurian-like characters and a Tolkien-esque sense of adventure, Dragonworld reminded me what it was like to see literature through the eyes of a sixteen-year-old, when reality was simply not enough to slake my thirst for the extraordinary.

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“A God-Eclipsing Miracle”: The Non-Western Imaginary World of Liu Cixin

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Liu Cixin is one of these writers that one happens upon while blissfully browsing in a favorite bookstore. In my case, this occurred at Changing Hands in Tempe, AZ, where I was perusing the science fiction section. Amidst the usual array of American and occasionally British authors the name Liu Cixin stood out like an unexpected flower in the middle of a sidewalk. The book on which Liu’s name was displayed was the second volume of a trilogy that I’d never heard of before, but which made this fortuitous encounter with Chinese sci-fi all the more enticing. Naturally, I looked for the trilogy’s first volume, which wasn’t available, nor were any other works by Liu.

When I returned home I hastily googled the author’s name, which straightaway directed me to his Wikipedia entry. In addition to being a multiple award winner, including China’s equivalent of the Hugo Award, I learned that Liu went to college in Yangquan, Shanxi and that he’s a trained technician and computer engineer. More important, though, was the fact that he and I were born the same year—almost on the same day! That was enough to convince me that I needed to delve into his writing. What I sampled in the bookstore instantly held me transfixed. But where to begin?

As I sifted through the selections available on amazon, I spotted a kindle edition of The Wandering Earth that promised to transport me from my mundane existence in Phoenix’s East Valley to a completely alternate universe, in which our blue planet and the solar system it had inhabited for countless millennia comes to an end. For what Liu imagines is a time when the earth’s rotation comes to a halt and humanity must figure out a way to survive the calamity. “My mother once told me,” as the unnamed narrator recalls in an elegiac tone, “about the time our family witnessed the last sunset.”

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Over the course of hundreds of years earthling’s have been artificially rotating their planet with massive engines placed strategically on all the continents, including Asia, where much of the story happens. However, these “Earth Engines” are not for the purpose of mechanically restoring the celestial status quo. Instead, they are for the objective of distending the earth’s orbit around the sun in a way that will catapult the planet into deep space. Once free of the solar system, the earth will travel across infinite distances in search of a new star to call home. Of course, the earth undergoes dramatic environmental changes, yet somehow humans persevere, turning to underground cities as the surface becomes uninhabitable. Oceans freeze and mountain ranges are completely razed.

Through it all, Liu’s main character watches society endure, although values and beliefs change in response to the extremities of their predicament. The development that struck me as the most interesting was when after humans were driven underground this led to the unforeseen decline of the world’s major religions. It seems that people reached a point where they simply stopped practicing these traditions. Liu, however, doesn’t dwell on this topic. In fact, his narrator recounts the passing of religion matter-of-factly. This very brief episode fascinated me so much because I thought that in the hands of an American writer there inevitably would have arisen some kind of messianic movement, since Americans have this irrepressible, often annoying predilection for apocalyptic, Second Coming-like plot developments. Liu’s world is much starker, which for me made it more believable. Having said that, I shall refrain from divulging too much of what was a sincerely satisfying story. The climax was compelling and the end left me with a delightful regret that the narrative had drawn to its conclusion. I wanted more. Needless to say, I’ll soon be seeking out the rest of Liu’s impressive bibliography.

“If You’ll Come Along, I’ll Show You What I Mean”: Richard Adams and ‘Watership Down’

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Richard Adams’ Watership Down is one of those books you pickup one day, only to find yourself suddenly on an adventure you’ll never forget. Neither parable nor allegory, the story of Hazel, Fiver, Bigwig, and their band of bucks fleeing the threat of human development is less like Orwell’s Animal Farm and more like Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows. As has become part of the book’s legend, the tales that would become the novel originated as diversions for the author’s young daughters. So, it’s fair to say that Adams remained true to the stories’ child-like origins, and refrains from delving into political statements about the evils of modernization and the agricultural industrial complex. At the same time, the story doesn’t shy away from the pervasive fear that is constantly driving the book’s characters, as they deal with a thousand things that want to kill them!

As such, Adams’ narrative displays a deep appreciation for nature and a tactile writing style that relishes the look and feel of the places it evokes and the rabbit-eye view of the characters. Interestingly, Adams acknowledges only a single source for his copious knowledge of rabbits, namely The Private Life of the Rabbit by R M Lockley. Not only did Adams not possess a substantial amount of personal knowledge about rabbits—one might think that he spent a great deal of time observing these creatures in nature—but also, his research was remarkably limited. Then, again, Lockley’s treatise seems to have sufficed at informing Adams portrayal of rabbits confronting the upheaval of having their home, or warren, destroyed by farmers, which are a type of human that particularly loathes rabbits and regards them as vermin.

Watership Down, then, is epic story about the struggle for survival that many creatures endure in their never-ending quest to find shelter, food, and, above all, safety. As such, the story of the rabbits’ pursuit of a new home is archetypal and it’s at this level that the reader may empathize with the constant terror that these small beings face with the travails and hazards they must confront on their journey, most importantly General Woundwort and Efrafa. As Adams writes near the beginning of his story:

“It was getting on toward moonset when they left the fields and entered the wood. Straggling, catching up with one another, keeping more or less together, they had wandered over half a mile down the fields, always following the course of the brook. Although Hazel guessed that they must now have gone further from the warren than any rabbit he had ever talked to, he was not sure whether they were yet safely away: and it was while he was wondering—not for the first time—whether he could hear sounds of pursuit that he first noticed the dark masses of the trees and the brook disappearing among them.”

What Adams does incredibly well is create a mythic style of storytelling that is characteristic of the kind of preliterate narratives that have long been a part of human culture since the dawn of time. Adams even creates a rabbit based oral history about a cultural hero named El-ahrairah within the larger tale of Watership Down. Indeed, it’s precisely that ability to appeal to the reader’s mythic imagination that enabled Watership Down to truly become a timeless classic.

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Morino: Patron Anti-Saint of Misanthropists

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Photo credit: David Martínez

I was about half-way through Otsuichi’s Goth when I finally realized why this book was giving me a case of déjà vu—it was the basis of Gen Takahashi’s 2008 film of the same title, starring Rin Takanashi as the iconic black-clad girl, “Morino,” and Kanata Hongō as her equally sullen and only friend. In the case of the 2005 novel, which Haika Soru has republished with two of the author’s afterwords and a novelette titled Morino’s Souvenir Photo, Otsuichi creates an endlessly fascinating world of perpetual darkness. However, by “darkness” I do not mean melancholy, hopelessness, or even evil per se, but rather soullessness. Each one of Otsuichi’s characters, especially Morino and her unnamed male friend, are utterly without any warmth or emotion. As for whether or not Goth is truly Goth seems to be a matter of opinion. The author does admit to the dubiousness of the label in “Afterword 1.” Nonetheless, there is undeniably an eerieness to the universe contained within Goth that infects even the daylight, when society is supposed to be at its most normal. Morino embodies all that is not normal. The narrator of Chapter IV “Memory/Twins,” for example, says of Morino:

“It seems fair to call Morino Goth. She frequently expresses an intense interest in torture methods and execution devices, and a fascination with the dark side of humanity is a common characteristic among Goths.

“Morino rarely exchanges words with anyone else. She has nothing fundamentally in common with our healthy, overenergetic classmates. If classmates smile and speak to her, Morino will simply stare back at them, her blank expression never crumbling—and she’ll say, ‘Oh.’ Even if classmates wait for her to say something else, nothing will happen: Morino will react no further.”

Yet, Morino’s relentlessly dispassionate demeanor is irresistibly intriguing. Morino has a kind of black magic that attracts to her persons and situations that expose an array of damaged human beings that inhabit the world around her. Goth, more specifically, is an anthology of morbidity in which the author reveals through the eyes of Morino, and her friend, a secret society of psychopaths, whose disdain for humanity is not above torture and murder. At the same time, Morino and her friend are open and unashamed about their perverse interest in the lives of serial killers and the places where homicides were committed. Because of Otsuichi’s skills as a storyteller—complete with an eye for subtle but effective character development, as well as a compelling way of disclosing evidence and plot-twists—Morino’s enthrallment with the murderous domain of killers becomes our fascination. Consequently, we are led through stories, among others, about a man with a compulsion for severing people’s left hands, twin girls who enjoy pretending to be dead, and another man who buried his best friend alive in his backyard. As for Morino’s ineffable but dark charm, in the novelette at the back of Goth, Morino is at a site where a girl was murdered a few years earlier. While there alone she encounters a man with a camera with reasons of his own for being there. Morino asks the man to take her picture. The man complies with her request. Then, Morino asks another favor:

“‘While you’re here, could I ask you to take a few more?’ she said, and lied down on the roots of the tree. Her hair fanned out on the ground, and her coat opened up.

“‘What are you doing?’

“‘I’m being a corpse.’

“I waited a few seconds, but there was no further explanation. My imagination took over, and I finally understood. Morino wanted to pretend to be the girl killed seven years ago and have me take pictures of it?”

Goth is full of moments like this, in which abnormal behavior is regarded as normal, and even beautiful. My mind was riveted on the image I had of Morino’s long black hair fanning out across the tree’s roots. Like the man taking her picture, I wanted her to look this way forever.

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Photo credit: David Martínez