Good fiction typically provides few good answers but many good questions. The great novels and stories can often be, however incompletely, expressed as a single, overarching question that the author is working out via narrative. Is the American dream an illusion? (The Great Gatsby); should a person marry for money? (Sense and Sensibility); can the son of God be born in human form and sacrifice himself to save humanity? (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows).
Good essay, like good fiction, is also mostly engaged in the act of asking questions. But the forms differ in a few crucial aesthetic respects, leaving aside the basic fact of fictionality, which, as we know, can be an overstated difference—nonfiction is often partly invented and much fiction is true, or true enough, but never mind that. Centrally, fiction possesses a narrator that obscures the author. Largely as a function of the narrator’s existence and also simple novelistic convention, most novels seek to attain a smooth narrative surface, an artifactual quality. A great deal of received wisdom regarding fiction craft has to do with the author disappearing in the service of creating John Gardner’s “vivid, continuous dream.” This isn’t to say that essayists don’t also obsessively and endlessly revise to create a polished surface, but the goal is typically not authorial effacement. Maybe an easier way to say it would be that both fiction and essay revolve around formulating questions, but essay very often works the act of questioning—of figuring out what the question is—into the form.
Joan Didion pioneered what we think of as the modern essay, a self-conscious blend of journalism, criticism, and personal experience. Some Didion essays are intensely focused on one subject, for instance, “On Keeping a Notebook.” But the most Didion-y of Didion’s essays are ones like “Slouching Toward Bethlehem” and “The White Album,” that meander through subject and theme like a car driving home from work via L.A.’s surface streets. “The White Album,” for example, combines the description of her mental instability and compulsive dread with a more panoramic view of her bad-trippy east-Hollywood neighborhood in the late ’60s, a personal account which ripples out into larger cultural considerations: the Doors, the Manson murders, and California—always California.
Didion’s stylistic legacy serves as both influence and study for Alice Bolin’s Dead Girls, an excellent collection of individual essays and also, to my mind, a fascinating example of the book-length possibilities of the essay form. Dead Girls begins in what seems straightforward-enough fashion with Part One, The Dead Girl Show, a quartet of thematically unified essays examining the centrality of the figure of the dead girl in American popular culture. These include “Toward a Theory of the Dead Girl,” about the glut of recent dead girl TV shows including True Detective, The Killing, and Pretty Little Liars; “Black Hole,” about growing up in the serial killer-y Pacific Northwest; “The Husband Did It,” about true-crime TV shows; and my personal favorite, “The Daughter as Detective,” about Bolin’s father’s taste in Scandinavian crime thrillers. (A side note: It’s not a requirement that you have mystery-addict parents to enjoy this essay, but it could hardly fail to charm someone who, like myself, grew up in a house crammed with Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö mysteries.)
Having established its seeming method in Part One, the book veers sideways into Part Two, Lost in Los Angeles, essays largely about Bolin’s experience as a 20-something living, for no especially good reason, in L.A. Aimlessness becomes a dominant theme, as the book shifts gears into writing about freeways, Britney Spears’s celebrity journey, and wandering around graveyards. Perhaps in an attempt to pre-empt readerly confusion at the book’s shape-shifting, Bolin has made it clear, both in press and in the introduction: This is not just a book of essays about dead girls in pop culture.
I understand this concern and will admit to feeling a slight confusion about Bolin’s project immediately after Part One. But proceeding through Part Two, and then Three, Weird Sisters, about teenage girlhood and the occult, I found myself increasingly glad the book had morphed and kept morphing. The book’s intelligence has a questing quality, a pleasant restlessness as it moves from literary criticism to personal anecdote to academic cultural/political critique and back again, like a jittery moth that never lands for too long on the light it circles.
The way Bolin modulates subject and approach metaphorizes both the breadth and slipperiness of her main thematic concern: narratives of female objectification. The book generally proceeds from objective to subjective, mimicking the detached and objectifying eye of its central detective figure in Part One, then moving steadily into subjective, personal territory. Like Indiana Jones switching a bag of sand for gold, Bolin substitutes her younger self as the Dead Girl and, in doing so, bestows the Dead Girl agency, brings her to life.
Part Four, the longform essay “Accomplices,” brings the project to an end and to a thematic whole. In a way, it embodies the entire book, incorporating the major concerns—growing up, white female objectification and privilege, romance and the lack thereof, Los Angeles—into a self-aware meditation on the author’s sentimental education in the context of literary counterparts like Rachel Kushner and Eileen Myles and, yes, Joan Didion. Bolin seems to be asking whether there is, inherent in the act of writing the classic coming-of-age “Hello to All That” essay, as she puts it, a self-objectification that echoes the deadly cultural objectifications critiqued earlier in the collection. “How can I use the personal essay,” she asks, “instead of letting it use me?” Part Four anatomizes the entire Dead Girls project, simultaneously encapsulating the book and acting as a Moebius strip that returns the reader to the more stylized and essayistic distance of the opening chapters.
To be clear, there are many standout and stand-alone individual essays in these sections. The aforementioned “Daughter as Detective,” which, in addition to its many virtues, contains the unforgettable description of Bolin’s father as a “manic pixie dream dad.” “This Place Makes Everyone a Gambler,” a deft personal history of reading and rereading Play It as It Lays, that weaves together L.A. noir, Britney Spears, and Dateline NBC. “Just Us Girls,” a touching cultural study of adolescent female friendship. But the book’s biggest triumph, in my opinion, is of a larger, formal nature, as Bolin marshals her themes and interests into a book-length reflection, of and on, the persistent figure of the Dead Girl.
Alice was kind enough to field a few of the questions that occurred to me in writing this review, mainly regarding how this book’s singular form came to be.
The Millions: Can you provide a little general background about how the book got written? I’m curious which essays were written first. Also, if there were any pieces that it became apparent needed to be written in the interest of book-length cohesion. I’m especially interested in “Accomplices,” which serves so well as an embodiment and critique of the project.
Alice Bolin: This is a little hard to answer because most of the previously published essays in the book are drastically changed from their earlier forms. I would say the book really started with “The Dead Girl Show” and the essays in the second section about California, which I started writing, hilariously, the second I moved there. I started most of those pieces in 2013 and 2014 in Los Angeles, and that was when I started to see the ideas I’d been working with coming together in some vaguely book-like shape. Most of the essays in the third section, “Weird Sisters,” existed earlier, though, in different versions—I realized late in the game that my preoccupations with witchiness and teen girl pathology pretty obviously dovetailed with the Dead Girl thing.
“Accomplices” was the last piece I wrote for the book, and I knew that it was my opportunity to pull up some of the narrative paths I’d laid down earlier, both about Dead Girls and about my own life. The book as a whole is about questioning received narratives, so I had ambitions for it to work as sort of a (sorry) palimpsest, putting forth suppositions and then writing over or revising them. I want there to be some dissonance for the reader.
TM: At what point did the theme of The Dead Girl emerge? Was it obvious from the start? The collection approaches this subject from so many angles; I’m interested in if there was a certain amount of retrofitting in the revision—that is, were there already completed or published essays that you went back to and revised with the dead girl subject/theme in mind? Or did it all kind of hang together as it does from the start?
AB: I think once I wrote “The Dead Girl Show,” I saw that Dead Girls were a theme that I had been interested in for a very long time. I had already been writing about thrillers, true crime, detective fiction, and horror movies, genres where Dead Girls were everywhere. After that I was thinking about other ways I could write about Dead Girl genres—like in the Nordic Noir essay—and about subjects from other pulp genres that could throw those essays into relief, like pop music or reality TV. I didn’t really do much retrofitting that I can remember, except maybe lines here and there. I have my MFA in poetry, so I have borrowed a lot of the ways I think about a collection from poetry books—that you allow your preoccupations to dictate the shape of the book, instead of the other way around.
TM: The book’s critical mode seems to move somewhat from objective to subjective, and then, in Part Four, comment on that move. That is (and I realize I might be oversimplifying here, since all these elements exist in all the essays), Part One is predominately cultural critique, and then parts Two and Three become increasingly personal. To what extent was this movement something that organically emerged in revision, and to what extent was it conscious?
AB: It’s interesting, because in my original draft I had the California essays first, and the Dead Girl essays second—they seemed most important to me, but then my editor was like “Uh, shouldn’t Dead Girls be first since that is the title and the whole point of the book?” She was so right. Someone else has pointed out that the book works like a Dead Girl show, with the Dead Girl as bait at the beginning of the book, but the rest of the narrative arc being about something totally different. I love this, but it didn’t really occur to me, except maybe intuitively. I definitely wanted the fourth section to critique the strategies of earlier essays, but beyond that, the organization was more by subject than method. I actually wanted to cut the third section late into the drafting process, if that tells you anything about how uncomfortable I am with writing about my own life!
TM: To me, because of the thematic unity and movement of the book, Dead Girls has a somewhat novelistic quality or instinct. Is this something you’re interested in doing? More generally, what’s next?
AB: This is such a nice compliment! I am absolutely interested in experimenting with fiction. I had a sort of epiphany in the past few months about how my own attitude toward myself in the book is a lot like the detachment novelists have toward their characters—it’s the only way I can break through (or maybe… use?) my self-loathing. Anyway, yes I am interested in writing an autobiographical novel sometime in the future, with more details TBA, in maybe like 10 years. I’m also thinking about another very girly essay collection about magazines, social media influencers, and the vintage internet, and more generally, the way women have mediated and monetized their personalities.
“When I ask him why he likes something, it’s a perverse exercise less to gain new insight than to trick him into admitting to his personality.” For Longreads, Dead Girls writer Alice Bolin tries to understand her father through the (sometimes misogynistic) mystery novels he reads and loves. (Read our own Janet Potter on Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy.)
Out this week: Dead Girls by Alice Bolin; The Secrets Between Us by Thrity Umrigar; Remind Me Again What Happened by Joanna Luloff; The Possible World by Liese O’Halloran Schwarz; and The Unpunished Vice by Edmund White.
We wouldn’t dream of abandoning our vast semi–annual Most Anticipated Book Previews, but we thought a monthly reminder would be helpful (and give us a chance to note titles we missed the first time around). Here’s what we’re looking out for this month. Let us know what you’re looking forward to in the comments, and get excited for the GREAT SECOND-HALF PREVIEW, which we will roll out in the second week of July.
(Also, as Millions founder and publisher C. Max Magee wrote recently, you can help ensure that these previews, and all our great books coverage, continue for years to come by lending your support to the site as a member. The Millions has been running for nearly 15 years on a wing and a prayer, and we’re incredibly grateful for the love of our recurring readers and current members who help us sustain the work that we do.)
Kudos by Rachel Cusk: When I first encountered Cusk’s writing in the mid-aughts I wrote her off as an author of potentially tedious domestic drama. I was woefully wrong. It’s true Cusk is a chronicler of the domestic: she is as known for her memoirs of motherhood and divorce as she is for her novels, but her writing is innovative, observant, and bold. The New Yorker declared that with the trilogy that her latest novel Kudos completes, Cusk has “renovated” the novel, merging fiction with oral history, retooling its structure. Cusk has said: “I’ve never treated fiction as a veil or as a thing to hide behind, which perhaps was, not a mistake exactly, but a sort of risky way to live.” (Anne)
There There by Tommy Orange: Set mostly in Oakland, Orange’s polyphonic novel describes the disparate but connected lives of group of Native Americans, many of them self-identified “urban Indians,” who come together for the Great Oakland Powwow. There, personal and communal and national histories propel events–and his cast of characters–toward a shocking denouement. Orange’s novel has been called a “new kind of American epic” by the New York Times; read more here. (Lydia)
Florida by Lauren Groff: After collecting fans like Barack Obama with her bestselling novel Fates and Furies, Groff’s next book is a collection of short stories that center around Florida, “the landscape, climate, history, and state of mind.” Included is ”Dogs Go Wolf,” the haunting story that appeared in The New Yorker earlier in the year. In a recent interview, Groff gave us the lay of the land: “The collection is a portrait of my own incredible ambivalence about the state where I’ve lived for twelve years...I love the disappearing natural world, the sunshine, the extraordinary and astonishing beauty of the place as passionately as I hate the heat and moisture and backward politics and the million creatures whose only wish is to kill you.” (Claire)
Number One Chinese Restaurant by Lillian Li: A family chronicle, workplace drama, and love story rolled into one, Li’s debut chronicles the universe of the Beijing Duck House restaurant of Rockville, Md., run by a family and long-time employees who intertwine in various ways when disaster strikes. Lorrie Moore raves, “her narratives are complex, mysterious, moving, and surprising.” Read an excerpt from the novel here at Buzzfeed. (Lydia)
The Terrible by Yrsa Daley-Ward: A poet’s memoir in prose and verse about a tempestuous adolescence in England, where the author was born to immigrant parents and raised by Seventh-Day Adventist grandparents. The memoir describes her experiences with drugs and alcohol, her relationships with men and with sex work, the struggles of her brother, and her development as an artist. A starred Kirkus review says “Daley-Ward has quite a ferociously moving story to tell.” (Lydia)
Confessions of the Fox by Jordy Rosenberg: A work of speculative historical fiction exploring queer and trans histories through the story of notorious 19th-century London thieves Jack Sheppard and Edgeworth Bess. This is a publishing event, the first work of fiction to be released by esteemed editor Chris Jackson’s One World imprint, and it has received accolades from every trade publication and a host of writers including Victor LaValle, China Miéville, and Maggie Nelson. (Lydia)
Ayiti by Roxane Gay: This is a reissue of Roxane Gay’s first book, a collection of short stories about Haiti and the diaspora, with two new stories. Ayiti was first published by the small press Artistically Declined Press in 2011, before the author was routinely at the top of the New York Times bestseller list. Kirkus says “Gay has addressed these subjects with more complexity since, but this debut amply contains the righteous energy that drives all her work.” (Lydia)
The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai: This third novel from the acclaimed author of The Borrower and The Hundred-Year House interlaces the story of an art gallery director whose friends are succumbing to the AIDS epidemic in 1980s Chicago with a mother struggling to find her estranged daughter 30 years later in contemporary Paris. “The Great Believers is by turns funny, harrowing, tender, devastating, and always hugely suspenseful,” says Margot Livesey, author of Mercury. (Michael)
Good Trouble by Joseph O’Neill: Frequent New Yorker and Harper’s readers will know that O’Neill has been writing a lot of short fiction lately. With the new Good Trouble, the Netherland author now has a full collection, comprised of 11 off-kilter, unsettling stories. Their characters range from a would-be renter in New York who can’t get anyone to give him a reference to a poet who can’t decide whether or not to sign a petition. (Thom)
Days of Awe by A.M. Homes: A new collection of stories from the prolific author of May We Be Forgiven featuring humorous, melancholy reflections on American life. The title story involves friends becoming lovers at a conference about genocides. The great Zadie Smith calls it “a razor-sharp story collection from a writer who is always ‘furiously good.'” (Lydia)
The Good Son by You-jeong Jeong (translated by Chi-Young Kim): South Korea’s best-selling crime novelist is a woman, although she is nonetheless marketed as “the Stephen King of Korea.” This novel, a sensation in South Korea and her first to be translated into English, is a psychological thriller involving a possible matricide, for “fans of Jo Nesbo and Patricia Highsmith.” (Lydia)
Upstate by James Wood: It’s been 15 years since Wood’s first novel, The Book Against God, was published. What was Wood doing in the meantime? Oh, just influencing a generation of novelists from his perch at The New Yorker, where his dissecting reviews also functioned as miniature writing seminars. He also penned a writing manual, How Fiction Works. His sophomore effort concerns the Querry family, who reunite in upstate New York to help a family member cope with depression and to pose the kinds of questions fiction answers best: How do people get through difficulty? What does it mean to be happy? How should we live our lives? (Hannah)
Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata (translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori): A 36-year-old woman in modern-day Tokyo has worked a convenience store for 18 years of her life, watching family and friends pairing off, having children, or climbing professional ladders. She eventually enters into a sham marriage with a coworker to embody an idealized notion of adulthood, but the plan backfires, and the book is a meditation on work, life, and “normalcy.” Kirkus says “Murata skillfully navigates the line between the book’s wry and weighty concerns and ensures readers will never conceive of the ‘pristine aquarium’ of a convenience store in quite the same way.” (Lydia)
Half Gods by Akil Kumarasamy: A collection of linked stories about a family devastated by the Sri Lankan civil war, which claims the lives of a mother and two sons. The father and remaining daughter flee to New Jersey, and the collection moves across time and place and between points of view to describe the dislocation of its characters and the enduring consequences of trauma. Publisher’s Weekly calls it “a wonderful, auspicious debut.” (Lydia)
History of Violence by Édouard Louis (translated by Lorin Stein): A fictionalized account of a true story. The author survived a violent sexual assault and this novelization exploring the aftermath, including his return to his family’s village, became a bestseller in France for its frank reckoning with the effects of sexual violence, as well a broader look at French society. (Lydia)
Sweet and Low by Nick White: A new entry in the field of southern gothic (complete with Faulkner homage), a collection of stories exploring masculinity, sexuality, and place in the deep south that has garnered praise from Jesmyn Ward and Alissa Nutting. Publisher’s Weekly called it “an atmospheric and expertly crafted collection.” (Lydia)
We Begin Our Ascent by Joe Mungo Reed: A debut novel that follows the travails of a team of professional cyclists–who happen to be doping–in the Tour de France, exploring ideas of competition, ambition, and team dynamics. The novel has drawn several comparisons to Don DeLillo, and George Saunders raved: “A dazzling debut by an exciting and essential new talent: fast, harrowing, compelling, masterfully structured, genuinely moving. Reed is a true stylist.” (Lydia)
Dead Girls by Alice Bolin: A collection of essays exploring the ubiquitous “dead girl” in popular culture, using shows like Twin Peaks and Pretty Little Liars to point to the misogyny that thrums through so many of the cultural products we consume. These are interwoven with personal essays about her arrival in Los Angeles. Kirkus calls it “an illuminating study on the role women play in the media and in their own lives.” (Lydia)
Sick by Porochista Khakpour: In her much anticipated memoir, Khakpour chronicles her arduous experience with illness, specifically late-stage Lyme disease. She examines her efforts to receive a diagnosis and the psychological and physiological impact of being so sick for so long, including struggles with mental health and addiction. Khakpour’s memoir demonstrates the power of survival in the midst of pain and uncertainty. (Read an excellent piece in The New Yorker here.) (Zoë)
The Captives by Debra Jo Immergut: Immergut published a collection of short stories in 1992, shortly after graduating from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, but her debut novel comes over 25 years later, a literary thriller that takes place in a prison where a woman is serving a sentence for second-degree murder. Her appointed psychologist once pined for her in high schhol. Publishers’ Weekly says “Immergut’s book begins as in incisive psychological portrait of two mismatched individuals and morphs into a nail-biting thriller.” (Lydia)
Tonight I’m Someone Else by Chelsea Hodson: Examining the intersection of social media and intimacy, the commercial and the corporeal, the theme of Hodson’s essay collection is how we are pushed and pulled by our desire. The Catapult teacher’s debut has been called “racingly good…refreshing and welcome” by Maggie Nelson. (Tess)
Fight No More by Lydia Millet: Millet’s 2010 collection Love in Infant Monkeys was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. Eight years later she’s released another collection of stories arranged around a real estate broker and their family as they struggle to reconnect. Millet’s satire is well-known for it’s sharp brutality—and its compassionate humanity. Both sides are on full display here. (Kaulie)
Invitation to a Bonfire by Adrienne Celt: On the heels of her critically praised debut, The Daughters, Celt gives us a love-triangle story that, according to the publisher, is “inspired by the infamous Nabokov marriage, with a spellbinding psychological thriller at its core.” The protagonist is a young Russian refugee named Zoya who becomes entangled with her boarding school’s visiting writer, Leo Orlov, and his imperious wife, Vera. Our own Edan Lepucki praised the novel as “a sexy, brilliant, and gripping novel about the fine line between passion and obsession. I am in awe of Celt’s mastery as a prose stylist and storyteller; I can’t stop thinking about this amazing book.” (Sonya)