by Emma Cline
The brutal murders committed by Charles Manson and his followers in 1969 shook a nation that was swaying between the Summer of Love and a series of assassinations of beloved public figures. The Tate-LaBianca killings seemed the summit of the cruelty and corruption of the culture. Manson was surely nuts. He was driven by delusions of talent and fame and when these were wrecked on the rocks of reality, he turned to finding fame through a spectacular act of hatred. There were numerous root causes of the murders, from Manson's hateful charisma, to the unhappy histories of his followers, to the hippie narrative of the corruption and collapse of mainstream culture. Manson's followers would grow from girls to women to senior citizens in prison. We still hear of occasional opportunities for parole denied. Lately, the whole scene has found a minor renaissance in fiction, with novels such as Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins, and the television show Aquarius. And, so, this novel, too, adds itself to the literature that looks back upon some of the darker days of the late sixties, as a counterpoint to the soft-focus reflections in the fifty years since these events transpired.
Here, author Emma Cline envisions a Manson-like murder spree, set now in Northern California and in the same 1969, but still not quite the Manson case. Our narrator is Evie Boyd, a woman looking back on her brief flirtation with a group led by a charismatic and hypnotic leader named Russell. But her entre to the group is Suzanne, a distracted sort of hippie zombie given over to a life in opposition to mainstream culture, dumpster diving, petty thievery, squatting in abandoned properties. Suzanne and the other girls in the group are devoted to their leader. Evie, who is an only child of fourteen, daughter of a mother distracted by her own search for a new man in her life, is looking for something different. She can see the subservient role her mother is accepting for herself, and the roles being taken on by the girls she knows in school. Even still, she surrenders to a sexual initiation as the price to be paid for belonging to something greater than herself, and something outside of the existence she has known so far. The major theme of the entire novel is how women's roles are driven by a sort of patriarchal possession. The men are in charge and the women, somehow, are in thrall. In some sense, Evie's understanding of this comes straight from her 21st century adult version of herself looking back on that time. There is a modern critique going on here, within the fiction. Not that there's anything wrong with that. This just begins to look like an extreme case of us wondering why any woman would end up with a man like Charles Manson.
When the murders come, as indeed they inevitably must, they are as brutal and bloody as we have imagined since page one. Yet the ultimate trigger of the killing seems weaker, less in tune with the zeitgeist than Manson's own crimes. What we want to know, and we are more or less left guessing, is why Suzanne and her cohorts would really carry out this crime. We aren't quite there, when it finally happens, we don't quite see the drive to nihilistic brutality. But we do see Evie's thrall to Suzanne, her desire for the older girl's evident self possession despite herself being under Russell's thumb. Even Evie is left wondering how far she would go on a hot summer's night of murder.
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See also: [Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins]