BASS 2018: Emma Cline, “Los Angeles” from Granta #139

It was only November but holiday decorations were already starting to creep into the store displays: cutouts of Santa wearing sunglasses, windows poxed with fake snow, as if cold was just another joke. It hadn’t even rained since Alice moved here, the good weather holding. Back in her hometown, it was already grim and snowy, the sun behind her mother’s house setting by 5 p.m. This new city seemed like a fine alternative, the ceaseless blue sky and bare arms, the days passing frictionless and lovely. Of course, in a few years, when the reservoirs were empty and the lawns turned brown, she’d realize that there was no such thing as unending sunshine.
The employee entrance was around the back of the store, in an alley. This was before the lawsuits, when the brand was still popular and opening new stores. They sold cheap, slutty clothes in primary colors, clothes invoking a low-level athleticism – tube socks, track shorts – as if sex was an alternative sport. Alice worked at a flagship store, which meant it was bigger and busier, on a high-visibility corner near the ocean. People tracked in sand and sometimes beach tar that the cleaners had to scrub off the floors at the end of the night.

Although several interesting moments jumped out at me, I had a hard time connecting with this story overall. It seemed to be a variety of what I call a “slacker story.” Alice isn’t really a slacker; she has a job that she puts some effort into, she takes acting classes with the goal, however naïve and perhaps vague, of being an actress. I can’t get a handle on her at all, really.

Cline’s Contributor Note even spells it out: she was exploring the idea of cost, including “the cost of our experiences, what they extract from us”, and the cost, for Alice of “her inability to fully inhabit her life.” That last phrase is quite good, and I recognize that’s what I was interpreting as slacker. But I don’t understand it, so I’m somewhat outside looking in on this one. Fortunately, Jake was able to latch on to this “not inhabiting life” theme in his usual substantive way, so I recommend his post.

What did come across for me was the layering of multiple instances of sexual exploitation of women, which Alice plays into out of… naïvete? This lack of connection to her own life? The store where she works hires salesgirls by sending photos to the home office for approval, rather than by looking at resumes and experience. I gather this is a reference to Abercrombie & Fitch, though the clothing seems quite different. She’s given free store-brand clothes to wear, but in a size too small. Men hang around the store for too long, sometimes buying enough merchandise to make the commissions worthwhile.

And then there are the panty fetishists. One of them offers Oona, a sales girl Alice befriends, $50 to hand over her underwear. Turns out there’s lots more online, and there’s good money to be made sending dirty underwear to strangers. There are indeed websites set up for this sort of thing. I can’t tell you how much I didn’t want to know that.

There were countless ads online. Oona had been right, and that night Alice lost an hour clicking through them, thinking how ludicrous people were. You press slightly on the world and it showed its odd corners, revealed its dim and helpless desires. It seemed insane at first. And then, like other jokes, it became curiously possible the more she referred to it in her own mind, the uncomfortable edges softening into something innocuous.

That process of the uncomfortable becoming innocuous is normalization, and it’s where we are right now. It’s become normal to be at war (we’ve been at war for 17 years, though you might not realize it). It’s becoming normal to hear the President use Twitter to call people names. It’s normal to read increasingly frantic reports about climate change and the devastation it will bring within our lifetimes, for some of us, as well as watching once-a-century storms roll onshore every couple of years. Normalization is all about keeping us playing with our apps (or, for some, working them ragged) while the world changes around us, while we aren’t paying attention. That’s the cost. If it’s dangerous for Alice, on a larger scale it’s catastrophic for all of us.

I’m almost embarrassed to mention this, but does the name Alice have any significance, as in Alice in Wonderland, with Oona as a guide? This seems a little too pat for me, but still, Alice does have a kind of gee-whiz-how-does-everything-work-here approach that fits.

And then there’s the final scene. It’s one of those things where we’re screaming, “No, for god’s sake, don’t get in the car with the panty guy!” and of course Alice can’t hear us. It was very “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been”, but there’s built-in soothing because the narration tells us Alice will be relating all this to Oona tomorrow, so she isn’t going to be found with a slash across her throat [Addendum: Thanks to Andrew Stancek, who pointed out this isn’t narration but Alice imagining what she will tell Oona; shame on me for missing that, a crucial point. There is ambiguity -yes, the guy is reaching for the unlock button, but he also delivers the rapey-est line ever, “relax, you’re only making it worse. I greatly appreciate the insight, Andrew, and I’m more convinced than ever that this story is about sexual exploitation, and how we become used to it; that leads us into danger.]. But, keeping in mind what Cline said about cost: if she survives this, what will she do next, and will she survive that?

4 responses to “BASS 2018: Emma Cline, “Los Angeles” from Granta #139

  1. You didn’t get into this story as much as I did. This is tired for my favorite right now with Danielle Evans’s “Boys Go to Jupiter,” which you’re two away from. I just like the whole “You’ve got to grow the hell up” theme. And that final scene. Yeah, “Where are You Going” was in my head, too. It doesn’t end up being a slashed throat, but it’s a scary as hell wake-up call.

    • After I got all outraged about how stupid this girl was to get in the car with the guy, I started to remember the insane chances I took when I was younger. I, too, got in a car with a stranger… but he wasn’t buying my dirty underwear, and he actually was kind and tried to be very helpful, but that was luck. Other chances I took, but I didn’t realize they were chances, back then we just couldn’t conceive that anyone normal-looking would try to hurt us. Now we know better, and the older you get, the more horror you see, and the more cautious you become.

      About the underwear business, though, I’m still hopelessly naive. 😉

  2. I agree with your reading into significance in the names, although not necessarily CS Lewis. Alice is a very standard name in contrast with Oona (which is actually my name and I was so shocked to see it in print!). Alice evokes a more staid and safe America than Oona, this exotic economically privileged city kid who is 17 and seems to be partying/involved with a a guy 10 years older than her. Oona’s daring is exciting and discomfiting to Alice, who actually had some awareness of her own sexual exploitation. Oona provides a foil, which brings to the surface the internal tensions Alice feels about being exploited sexually, despite facilitating men to exploit her.

    Agreed about Where Are You Going, and for me the ambiguity of this piece is more chilling and less sensational than Joyce Carol Oates’ ending. It all hangs on the “would” in “Alice would leave this part out.” It’s so creepy! I’m totally willing to believe it goes either way.

    Also, I think the clothes brand referred to is American Apparel, based on the description of the clothes as overpriced basics, “cheap, slutty clothes…invoking low-level athleticism…as if sex was an alternative sport.” Plus all the mostly naked sort of disheveled looking models in the ads. The CEO of AA would go around hitting on the girls in the stores and they had a practice of putting less good-looking people in back stock. The CEO’s sexual harassment of his employees basically shut the operation down.

    Also, re: the underware, the temptation of the seemingly easy money of the sex industry is real. But there’s a vulnerability and potential for exploitation that goes along with it. And Alice is this character who is not inclined to engage with sex work, but she does it anyway, which says a lot about how loosely she reinforces her own boundaries/her lacking sense of self.

    • Good point about the name Oona – I’ve been trying to remember who the famous Oona is/was, and I finally googled it – of course, Oona Chaplin, Charlie Chaplin’s wife. But I doubt that has relevance to the story.

      Thanks for the tip about American Apparel!

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