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?

BASS 2017: Emma Cline, “Arcadia” from Granta #136

Granta art by Emli Bendixen / Millennium Images

Granta art by Emli Bendixen / Millennium Images

“There’s room for expansion,” Otto said over breakfast, reading the thin-paged free newspaper the organic people sent out to all the farms. He tapped an article with his thick finger, and Peter noticed that Otto’s nail was colored black with nail polish, or a marker. Or maybe it was only a blood blister.
“We draw a leaf or some shit on our label,” Otto said, squinting at the page. “Even if it just kind of looks like this. People wouldn’t know the difference.”

Complete story available online at Granta

That line about the black nail, coming in the first paragraph like that, stood out to me. I kept thinking about it; these aren’t city kids in a Brooklyn loft hoping to be discovered. Why would a farm guy would think another farm guy would be using black nail polish? It couldn’t be a throwaway line, not featured so prominently; no editor would stand for that. As I was reading the story, I kept making notations about public and private; it seemed like the crux of the story. But I think that’s a subordinate theme. The whole story is in that opening discussion: what’s real, what’s fake, what’s natural, what’s artificial about these people, and who’s kidding whom about the relationships among them?

It took me a while to figure out who was who. Otto and Heddy are siblings who are functionally parent and child. Heddy and Peter are… to call them lovers or engaged feels too romanticized, too deliberate; they’re basically kids who found themselves pregnant, so Peter moved in and they’ll get married at some point. “Peter had moved into Heddy’s childhood bedroom, still cluttered with her porcelain dolls and crumbling prom corsages, and tried to ignore the fact of Otto’s room just down the hall” kind of sums it up, and creeps me out.

Peter feels the most familiar to me. He’s bewildered and a bit unsure of himself and his role in the family and on the farm, but he seems to have a straightforward, honest outlook. Except that he kind of read Heddy’d diary and stole her idea about setting up a website for the farm, a transgression that seems to bother him more than it bothers Heddy, if she’s even aware of it.

At the start of the story, Heddy, all of eighteen going on twelve, is starting junior college, armed with an array of notebooks and variously colored pens and ready to figure out how to cover her textbooks with paper bags, studying French and salsa dancing, going swimming in the afternoons for “low-impact exercise”. Turns out, she’s a lot better at getting ready to go to school than she is at school.

Which plays into the path of the story: I know nothing about life on a small Northern California farm, but I do know that change is hard, especially when you’re in a family that’s determined to maintain the status quo. As with the diary reading, whether Heddy’s aware or not is ambiguous; it’s Peter who realizes his vision of moving into their own place with “curtains for the nursery that she’d want to sew herself” is a fantasy, that they’re going to be living down the hall from Otto for the forseeable future.

And oh, by the way, Arcadia is the mythic Greek land of natural perfection – and the home of the libidinous woodland god Pan.

Then I come back to the black fingernail. Peter, the point-of-view character and observer/processor, doesn’t attach value to the options, whether it’s artifice, accident, or the remnants of a wound. He just notices, and presents the picture of Otto and Heddy for us to sort out.