In The Girls, her first novel, Emma Cline has taken the story of the Manson Family as a template and made her own sly alterations. Some of these are cosmetic: The setting is moved from Southern California to the outskirts of the Bay Area; no historical names are retained. Others are in the interest of streamlining the narrative: A few characters seem to be composites of real-life figures and several wholly imagined; the predictions of a Beatles-themed apocalyptic race war that Manson was spouting before the Family’s murders (he called it “Helter Skelter”) have been entirely dispensed with. Cline has retained the essential structure of a gang of hippies living in hedonistic squalor on a remote ranch, the women sexually in thrall to a buckskin-clad charismatic leader who keeps them around with the shared delusion that he’s destined to become a rock superstar. A grisly night of speed-fueled murders goes down, and there’s blood on the wall. Cline’s crucial decision, signaled in her title, is to tell the story in the voice of a minor, off-and-on member of the re-imagined cult. Now middle-aged and looking back on the strange summer of 1969, when she was 14, Evie Boyd is a narrator in the mold of Nick Carraway, but her Gatsby isn’t the Manson figure (here renamed Russell Hadrick). It’s a woman named Suzanne Parker, one of the murderers and a figure with a charismatic power all her own.
The Manson horror show has been chewed over in too many books, films, and other pop-culture ephemera to count. And though the murderers Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, Leslie Van Houten, and Charles “Tex” Watson, as well as Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, who later attempted to assassinate Gerald Ford, accrued their own repertory celebrity, the focus of Manson lit — from the Rolling Stone cover story that dropped during the trial, to prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi’s best seller Helter Skelter, to Jeff Guinn’s excellent 2013 biography Manson — is usually on the maestro, who still makes the news when he gets engaged from prison or has a birthday (he’s now 81). A bogus meme this spring had it that he’d endorsed Donald Trump for president. Reviewing Guinn’s book when it appeared, I found exposure to videos of Manson’s recent parole hearings toxic enough to be nightmare-inducing. For the baby-boomers, the Manson episode lingers with Altamont as one of the bad dreams that closed the book for 1960s utopianism. Cline approaches the story without those hang-ups. A 27-year-old graduate of the Columbia MFA program, whose fiction has appeared in the Paris Review and Tin House, she’s shrewdly reasoned that we’ve heard enough about Charlie. In the cult dynamic, she’s seen something universal — emotions, appetites, and regular human needs warped way out of proportion — and in her novel she’s converted a quintessentially ’60s story into something timeless. (It hasn’t gone unreported that her efforts earned her a $2 million advance from Random House.)
The Girls has a retrospective frame. When it begins, Evie Boyd is a middle-aged woman, out of work and living in a borrowed house on the Northern California coast. Unexpected guests arrive in the middle of the night, and her frightened mind jumps back in time, to the night of the murders. The guests turn out not to be intruders but Julian, the college-age son of the house’s owner, and his 18-year-old girlfriend, Sasha. Their youth and delinquency — Julian smuggles pot and was thrown out of school for poisoning a professor’s dog — reminds her of her own seduction by Suzanne into Russell’s cult.
The decades that have passed allow Evie to understand it all with some clarity. When just out of junior high, she was drawn in from a place of unhappiness: her parents newly divorced, her crush on an older boy unrequited, her friendship with the boy’s sister going sour. She glimpses the “black-haired girl,” Suzanne, from afar, in a park pulling at the neckline of her dress and for a moment exposing a nipple. The excitement is part attraction, part identification — it’s a public demonstration of perverse impulses Evie recognizes in herself. She sees Suzanne and her “attendants” take a bag of bread and an uncooked chicken from a restaurant dumpster, get shouted away by a man in an apron, and climb into a school bus painted black. On their next encounter, in a shop where Suzanne is thrown out when the shop’s owner recognizes her from a previous theft, Evie returns to buy for Suzanne the toilet paper she was after, saying she stole it to impress her new friend; a few days later, Suzanne invites the younger girl to the cult’s ranch and assumes the role of big sister, lover, protector, groomer, and corrupter.
Cline’s true subject is the tangle between Evie and Suzanne’s bond and the cult’s internal economy. Within the closed system of the ranch, the women of the cult are at once commodities and procurers of food and money, venturing out into the straight world to commit little acts of larceny. The first day Evie visits, a boy asks Suzanne if she’s a “solstice present” and is told to shut up. But when the evening’s party commences — a car is ritually burned, and there’s a feast of “watery vegetable pabulum, the mash of potatoes and ketchup and onion soup packets” — another of the girls calls Evie “our sacrifice … Our solstice offering.” She meets Russell, and he takes her to his trailer with the promise, unfulfilled, that they’ll be joined by Suzanne. A sexual initiation follows. “I wanted Russell to be a genius,” Evie says. She gets stoned, and he turns out to be a reciter of lines like these: “Shy Evie …. You’re a smart girl. You see a lot with those eyes, don’t you.” “I’m like you … I was so smart when I was young, so smart that of course they told me I was dumb.” “There’s something in you … Some part that’s real sad. And you know what? That makes me real sad. They’ve tried to ruin this beautiful, special girl. They’ve made her sad. Just because they are.” She starts to cry, and a page later he’s pushing her head toward his crotch.
“An act, I thought, calibrated to comfort young girls who were glad, at least, that it wasn’t sex. Who could stay fully dressed the whole time, as if nothing out of the ordinary were happening.”
“But maybe the strangest part — I liked it, too.”
This is the most we see of Russell and the “undercooked look of his dick.” For Evie this episode is less a matter of her submission to the cult leader than her initiation into a sisterhood. Evie spends the rest of the night with Suzanne: “You can crash in my room if you want,” she says. “But you have to actually be here if you’re going to be here. Get it?” To Evie the moment was like “those fairy tales where goblins can enter a house only if invited by its inhabitants,” only here she’s the innocent invited into a house of goblins. She doesn’t realize it yet but instead senses “the possibility that my life was hovering on the brink of a new and permanent happiness.” Evie goes home the next day, and becomes a thief for her new friends at the ranch, stealing from her mother’s purse and hustling the boy next door for $65 of his parents’ money with the promise of bringing him weed. At Russell’s suggestion, Suzanne takes her to the home of Mitch Lewis — a rocker composite of Beach Boy drummer Dennis Wilson and Byrds producer Terry Melcher, the men Manson hoped would grease his path to stardom — and they have a coke-fueled threesome, the end of Evie’s virginity: “I’d enacted some pattern, been defined, neatly, as a girl, providing a known value. There was something almost comforting about it, the clarity of purpose, even as it shamed me.”
For the rest of the novel Evie ping-pongs between the ranch and her old life — the mingling of her sense of belonging with crude transactional sex has poisoned the fun, but neither can she go home again. Her final visit to the ranch sees Russell’s group in a state of high desperation, seemingly starving and deranged with access to more speed than food. Russell dispatches the killers — Suzanne among them, Evie almost — to Mitch’s house “to teach him a lesson,” and they commit something like the massacre visited on Sharon Tate and her friends. Cline’s decision to substitute a simple revenge plot for the baroque paranoid end-times scenario Manson improvised to maintain Family discipline makes sense for her book. She knows her strengths are psychological, not Pynchonian.
Cline has a lush descriptive style, and she favors the sentence fragment where the pressure falls on nouns: on one visit to the ranch she sees the “silty rectangle of pool, half full, with its teem of algae and exposed concrete … The crispy package of a dead frog, drifting on the surface.” A system of metaphors drawn from Evie’s middle-class world animates her departure from it. (There are a few too many like-dependent similes, but one gets used to them.) Cline’s exquisite set pieces are the equal of her intricate unwinding of Evie’s emotions: Even after the murders she thinks, “Suzanne was not a good person. I understood this. But I held the actual knowledge away from myself.” When she finds Polaroids from Suzanne she feels something more like love but knows she’s also stifling disgust.
These effects are all the more potent for what Cline has left out. There’s very little cultural noise in the picture. Evie reads a few magazines, watches an episode of Bewitched, and there’s a reference to Jefferson Airplane, but Cline hasn’t overloaded the book with ostentatious period details and trivia. (Nor did I notice any anachronisms.) The Girls isn’t a Wikipedia novel, it’s not one of those historical novels that congratulates the present on its improvements over the past, and it doesn’t impose today’s ideas on the old days. As the smartphone-era frame around Evie’s story implies, Cline is interested in the Manson chapter for the way it amplifies the novel’s traditional concerns. Pastoral, marriage plot, crime story — the novel of the cult has it all. You wonder why more people don’t write them.
*This article appears in the May 30, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.