Oh well, whatever, nevermind

Robin Wasserman, Girls on Fire

Little, Brown, 368pp, £12.99, ISBN 9781408707111

reviewed by Sharlene Teo

Teenage girls have an indomitable foothold in the literary and popular imagination. How unforgettably they have been evoked in fiction, from Francoise Sagan’s sly nymphette Cecile in Bonjour Tristesse through to Jeffrey Eugenides’s pantheon of inscrutable, suicidal Lisbons in The Virgin Suicides. Robin Wasserman’s Girls on Fire aspires toward that oeuvre, with mixed results.

Wasserman’s chutzpah is apparent from the novel’s opening section, which takes the form of lofty missive: ‘Try not to see them, I dare you. Girls, everywhere. Leaning against storefronts, trying so hard to look effortless as they dangle cigarettes and exhale clouds of smoke; tapping phones while shrieking Mom is such a bitch.’ The propulsive quality of Wasserman’s writing is clear, and she is excellent at pairing sensual details with the plain quirks of colloquial speech. The opening section signals Girls on Fire as a fiercely ambitious novel that wears its scale proudly. It is a Big Book about Bad Girls. And therein lies its tremendous popular appeal.

Female friendship is touted as the latest artistic trend across books, film and television (see: Frances Ha, Girls) with the same puzzling conviction that brunch is bandied as a hallmark of millennial indulgence. I don’t get it. I’m pretty sure brunch and female friendships have been around for much longer than marketing teams made them a ‘thing’. Elena Ferrante’s masterful Neapolitan quartet cemented female friendship squarely on the literary radar, but the decades-spanning saga between Lila and Elena is powerful as much for the characters’ mercurial interplay as the wider depiction of politics and poverty in Naples.

A pretzel twist of female friendship forms the core of Girls on Fire: between the submissive Hannah, rechristened ‘Dex’ by the unapologetic outlier Lacey, and a further competitive dynamic between Lacey and queen bee Nikki Drummond. They live in the deadbeat town of Battle Creek in the nineties, and a workable byline very well might be ‘Beware the Regina George in grunge clothing.’ Who is the mean girl here? Allegiances and perpetrators of wrongdoing shift about amidst a heady, messy narrative that takes in witchcraft and child abuse, blackmail, broken marriages, and neglected childhoods that play out into increasingly morbid acts of teenaged rebellion.

Adolescent anger is examined anthropologically. There is a coldness and calculation to how this anger is worked through and exhumed in Girls on Fire. Lacey curses like swearwords are going out of fashion. I’m fond of the word ‘fuck’ myself, but even I grew sick of reading it. We get it – Lacey is a bad girl, and bad girls cuss and smoke and seduce boys in haystacks. Bad girls tempt their friends’ fathers, Lolita-style. Bad girls lie and connive and cheat. It’s damning, compulsive reading. But where is the compassion? Lacey and Nikki and Nikki’s doomed boyfriend Craig have kinky sex that escalates into destruction. Self-harm, moonshine and drugs are thrown in for good measure.

And the time period – we never forget we’re in the grunge era that so heavily influences the Urban Outfitters aesthetic. Its setting and timeframe feel both decorative and too heavily ornamental. Girls on Fire harnesses the nineties as a mode of over-showy historical fiction, choking the reader with detail. Every idiomatic motif of nineties rock culture that you could rattle off the top of your head is included. It’s a nineties-themed party in a novel (which could be a good or bad thing, depending on your preference). Courtney Love, flannel shirts paired with Doc Martens, Bikini Kill and a ubiquitous member of the 27-club: Kurt Cobain, lead singer of Nirvana, whom Lacey is obsessed with.

Kurt. Kurt with his watery blue eyes and his angel hair, the halo of stubble and the way the rub of it would burn…Rock god, sex god, angel, saint: Kurt…Kurt’s voice, and how it hurts…the real living, breathing, Courtney-screwing Kurt…miles of translucent skin glowing white.

The problem with making such a recent and recognisable real-life cultural icon a centrepiece of the novel is that Lacey’s rhapsodising of Kurt comes off as overwritten and veering on fan fiction. We know what Cobain looks like, having been told a dozen times. We get that he is pretty and supremely talented and doomed. Where one detail would suffice, we get ten.

Shirley Jackson, that singular yet oft-imitated high priestess of the gothic, plumbed the psychological depths of teenhood to chilling effect in We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Yet it was her narrator Merricat’s mutability that made her cohere as a fully believable and complex teenaged protagonist. She was an unreliable narrator first and a teenager second. The ellipses between knowing and unknowing served to provoke rather than perplex the reader. Her age never felt like narrative shorthand for her volatility.

The timeless teenagers of American fiction – from Holden Caulfield to Esther Greenwood – remind us of the uncanny seething under the quiet moments of adolescence. The hazy limbo post-childhood when we are still trying to make sense of how we want to see and be seen by the world, before experience smoothens our awkward voices and we’re fettered by adult obligation. It is these characters’ recognition of life’s weirdness and the absurdity of social niceties that makes them so real, so resonant. To assume the reader needs the bombast and explosions of sex, drugs and a crash-course of grunge references underestimates our intrinsic understanding and memory of teenhood. Everyone old was young once. Everyone calm was angry once also; we don’t need this anger crammed down our throats. I like to think we read to be enlivened and illuminated rather than to be pandered with the saleable obvious. As readers, we would rather feel empathy toward these teenaged girls than maintain a finger-wagging distance. By the end of Girls on Fire, Lacey and Nikki never come off as anything more than sexy caricatures. Dex fares slightly better as the sympathetic cipher through which the two other girls conduct their implausible machinations.

In some ways, Girls on Fire encapsulates the aspect of youth (and continuing millennial adulthood) where we ache to be cool and relevant, to name-drop all the right cultural indicators that form a zeitgeist. It is hungry for the likes, and that’s the problem. I want to read a novel that is a story for what it’s worth rather than one that seems to cast one canny eye toward what’s on trend or a potential movie adaptation. Here is a Big Book that feels crowded to the seams, yet when you tap the plot, it’s hollow. Wasserman has tremendous powers of observation and description, and in the more pared-down moments of Girls on Fire, these gifts shine through. When she’s not trying so hard to remind us she’s a nineties grunge wild child, Lacey’s narrative strand has the ability to deliver real affective wallop:

I won’t tell you what I did that first night, after I sent you inside to your happy family: how empty the car felt on the drive home, how I had to turn off the music and endure the quiet you left behind in case, if I listened hard enough, the night could tell me what to do.

The voice here is stripped down, sad, and has a brilliant cadence. If only we could have heard more of it throughout the novel.