Chelsea Girl: Youth and Precociousness in Nicolaia Rips’s Trying to Float: Coming of Age in the Chelsea Hotel

If there is a commonality present in the profiles of young artists, it is this cliché: they are precocious—old souls encapsulated in a child. Take for example Millie Bobby Brown—the twelve-year-old actress that made captured our collective attention as Eleven in Netflix’s smash-hit Stranger Things. If you google her name and that ubiquitous term, you’ll find several articles that extol her precociousness. This easy descriptor for anyone of a certain age masks our uncertainity on how approach prominent, artistic children in writing. “Smart” feels too patronizing, “wise beyond their years” ages them up. Precocious is a safe, arm’s-length distancing term. We recognize your talent, but we also recognize that you are young.

Nicolaia Rips gets categorized with the same adjective in most of the write-ups about her recently released memoir, Trying to Float: Coming of Age in the Chelsea Hotel. Rips, a seventeen-year-old recent high school graduate, writes about her early years living at the Chelsea Hotel, the New York City hotel famous (or infamous) for being an artistic hotspot, housing celebrities like Madonna, Edie Sedgewick, Marilyn Monroe, and Sid Vicious, among others. In her memoir, Rips chronciles her Bohemian lifestyle, including the outrageous cast of characters that make up the other residents at the hotel. The memoir focuses on how her upbringing made her an outcast at her fancy elementary and middle schools, as a more indie version of Eloise.

hc-320x32011

The Chelsea Hotel (via Chelsea Hotel)

Precociousness can only take you so far, especially in the genre of memoir. Leigh Stein elluciates this in her piece “Millennial Days” for The New York Times: “While time and distance can add depth to personal narratives, the assumption [is] that the young memoirist is too naïve to know she must wait to tell her story […].” Memoirists, especially young women memoirists, are urged to wait for the insight that comes with age to write their story. I think it all comes back to our internalized disdain for creative, successful children, these kids we label with precocious in order forgo an in-depth analysis of their work. To quote Bioshock Infinite, “This world values childhood, not children.” We love stories of childhood; it is our personal mythology. We craft conspiracy theories that suggest that the reason we are the way we are is because of the way we were raised as children. However, we do not value children as artists in the same way. Stories of childhood must be told through the filter of an aged self that has the vocabulary and expertise to craft and bend a life story to fit a more complete narrative. With the distance, we are able to see how the foggy events of our adolescence fit within the context of the whole. In effect, you must wait to create if you want to be taken seriously as an artist.

More power to Nicolaia Rips, then, for taking up a pen and writing her experiences at such a young age. Rips makes use of the lack of distance between her experience and the writing of those experiences in what Leigh Stein calls a “zoomed-in” observation of her girlhood. Girlhood is already my personal favorite element to examine in literature. Already this summer, my personal reading has focused on the ways in which women writers use their craft to talk about the vulnerability of girlhood. Here, Rips does not focus so much on traumas particular to girlhood, but rather, the magic and confusion of this period of her life in short, vignette-like chapters.

The strongest passages of the memoir are found when Rips focuses on the almost magical aspects of her unique upbringing of her coming of age. Descriptions of her neighbors’ artistic temperments and her character sketches of those lifelong residents of the Chelsea Hotel are almost magical and surreal. When she spends time to develop these passages, Trying to Float becomes a kunstlerroman, wherein Rips discovers where she fits in this world of artists and starts to hone her own creative side.

Trying to Float takes advantage of the liminal space of hotels and the cast of bizarro characters that they tend to draw to track her girlhood experiences, but we often leave the hotel to follow Nicolaia’s early education. Even though the memoir itself is about the duality of Nicolaia’s life (the Bohemian romanticism of growing up in a storied refuge for artists versus her attempt to connect with her well-to-do WASP-y classmates), I found myself uninterested with the typical outsider narrative that she employs to write about her education. When we move from the hotel to her schools, we lose some of that magic that Rips has built-up. Not to diminish the important narrative of the ways in which her upbringing marginalizes her and makes her an outcast among her classmates, but these moments drag on and left me skimming the pages in order to get back to the sections set in the Chelsea Hotel.

Rather frustratingly, she does not take advantage of the lack of distance between her life and her writing about her life to draw conclusions or at least explore the importance of these moments. Her chapers, which are short enough to read as vignettes, do not move beyond the surface. This narration without discussion makes the book weaker and squanders the magical Eloise-esque passages of the memoir. I would have liked to see a bit more self-awareness from Rips as an older narrator.

Rips’s voice here is slightly underdeveloped, as if she hasn’t quite found the right tone and is still experimenting. This could be due to audience confusion. As I was reading, I found it difficult to place the book with an audience. Is it for a general audience, or, is Rips doing something more interesting and writing to a young adult audience? To my knowledge, memoirs are not typically marketed to young adult readers. Her writing style could fit easily in the YA category and maybe it should be marketed as a YA memoir.

I personally don’t subscribe to the theory that books must a perfect, moving piece that have to be inline with the canon. They are allowed to be a playground of experimentation. While I believe that Trying to Float could have been a better book with the elements of X, Y, or Z, what is important is Rips’s ability to experiment with what a memoir should read like. Given that this is Rips’s first book, and that it was published before she left high school, it would be asking too much for her book to be the precocious work that it is made out to be.  I am excited to see where her writing takes her and even more excited if the rumors about her writing a second memoir about her high school years are true.

 

Advertisements

Fetishizing Reading and Other Concerns: A Reading Challenge Update

One of my goals post-graduation was to read more. Read more nonfiction, read more widely, read books that I had been meaning to read for years. Just read. College kept me honest as a reader, because I was constantly reading. I was reading a novel every week for one class, a Renaissance play once a week, poetry. And on top of that, I read longform thinkpieces on top of that just to keep up with the discourse™.

Reading is almost fetishized at this point. I feel like I see so many people on social media talking about their massive To Be Read piles or  posting highly filtered pictures of their books and cup of tea. Which, of course, is fine. But the act of reading is almost like a signifier of higher intelligence, a smug, but lowkey “I’m better than you. All you do is scroll through your Twitter mentions.”

There’s nothing I love more than scrolling through my Twitter feed, or passing my time on Tumblr, or rewatching 30 Rock on Netflix. I am a huge social media junkie. If being on those sites is killing my brain cells, that’s fine by me. I like to feel engaged in the culture that way. But I found myself wanting to be more balanced. Yes, I might spend hours scrolling, but I also wanted to spend time reading in a genre that I’m not used to reading. (Can you tell that I’ve recently taken up yoga by how many times I mention balance?)

The year is more than half over now and I’m happy to say that I’ve read 24 books so far this year. My goal is to read 50 books. Who knows if that is an achievable goal or not, but I am going to give it the good ol’ post-grad try.

Crafting Girlhood Trauma in Emma Cline’s The Girls

 “All that time I spent readying myself, the articles that taught me life was really just a waiting room until someone noticed you—the boys had spent that time becoming themselves” (27-28).

There are serendipitous moments that life gives you as a little gift.

Approximately a year ago, I was being propelled into my final year at Agnes Scott College. More accurately, I was being dragged, kicking and screaming. I had been in an email correspondance with a professor that I had yet to meet about a capstone project for my English Literature degree. It was simple enough—work with an author and/or text for a semester, producing a 25-page mini-thesis by the Christmas break.

When I started the degree nearly two years earlier, I was convinced that I was going to work with Keats or Austen, someone in the Romantic or Regent movement. Of course, the best laid plans of mice and men… In my third year, I fell in love with Postmodernism, specifically Thomas Pynchon and his California-set writing.  By the end of the semester, I had written a 31-page paper (overachiever!) on The Crying of Lot 49 and Inherent Vice and Pynchon’s attempt to undo the false, idealized images of 1960s California.

Needless to say, this particular period and place hold a special place in my heart. I had spent months researching 1960s California, focusing on the rise of the countercultural mainstays of the era, hippies. The Manson Murders, as it has been documented by several researchers, was an important event; after the murders on Cielo Drive, the cultural opinion of hippies shifted from “whatever” to “hippies are going to murder me.” The cultural landscape changed instantly.

So when I heard about a debut novel called The Girls by Emma Cline that fictionalized the Manson Murders, I pre-ordered my copy almost on sight. The Manson Murders haunt Pynchon’s Inherent Vice; the protagonist, a hippie P.I. named Doc, is often the target of “straight world” bias because of his counterculture affliation. Bigfoot Bjornsen, Doc’s police contact, reveals, “The truth is…right now everybody’s really, fucking, scared.” To which Doc responds, “Who—you people? Scared of what? Charlie Manson?” (208-209).

Yes. Scared of Charlie Manson. Innocence, or what passed for it, is gone. To not be afraid is to be verging on ignorance.

Cline’s novel, although drawn heavily from the Manson Murders, does not focus on the Manson-esque character, Russell. In a clever perspective shift, the novel focuses on the fictionalized women of Charlie Manson’s Family—known collectively (and titularly) as The Girls. This shift allows for a deep dive analysis of the way girlhood is coded and received by girls themselves, focusing on the particular traumas of being a girl in a patriarchal society that insists your body is both A) not good enough to attract attention from men and B) that your embodiment is your only worth.

Evie Boyd, a 14-year-old child of divorce, lives in late ’60s suburban Northern California. Feeling disconnected from her mother, shut-out by her only friend, and ignored by the men that surround her, she runs away from home and falls falls in with a magnetic group of young women who bring her back to their squalid ranch. Unlike any of the women she has ever encountered in her life or her magazines, Evie is fascinated with their dirt and grime, their nonchalance, and their obsession with Russell, but most of all, she becomes enthralled by Suzanne, who becomes her womanhood ideal. She lives with them on their ranch as the become more and more unhinged.

gallery-1466012493-emma-cline-the-girls

What is most evocative about Cline’s book is not the retelling of the Manson stories, but rather the discussion about the specific ways in which young girls are violated and manipulated by a patriarchal society. Unlike Pynchon’s novel, Cline zeroes in on the psyche of a Manson Girl. Even in this space of the ranch that is supposed to be designated as a space of gender equality, the same abuse and manipulation of the girls occurs. She becomes the object of Russell’s mastubatory fantaties. She is given to Russell’s Dennis Wilson stand-in Mitch as a sexual offering. As she tries to hitchhike back to Russell’s ranch, the man who picked her up tries to physically keep her in his car, clutching at her body. She shakes these experiences off as if they are minor annoyances—commonplace and almost prerequisite.

Ultimately, the girls are stronger than their leader. After it is discovered that they committed these gruesome, cultural defining murders,  Russell tries to outrun the police, becoming hysterical upon his capture. The girls do not. Cline writes, “There was a demented dignity to their resistence—none of them had run. Even at the end, the girls had been stronger than Russell” (353). They face their certain imprisonment head-on, evoking their real-life counterparts, who held hands and sang on their way to their trial. Their capacity for pain had already been tested.

images (2)

The Manson Girls hold hands and sing on the way to their trial in 1970

What makes the girls stronger than their charming leader, Russell? Cline’s novel suggests that the traumas of girlhood outweigh the trauma of imprisonment—that girlhood, as it currently stands, is a type of imprisonment. It is a type of hyperembodiment. Cline writes at length about Evie and her friend Connie’s primping and picking of their bodies at the urging of their favorite magazines and of the way the carry themselves and the way they flirt with boys who pay no mind to them at all. It’s an overawareness of the body, being beholden to a certain type of embodiment, being held to the standard of the semiotic Sign. You are trapped in a body that you are (discreetly) told does not belong to you.

In a scene near the end of the book, Present Day Evie finds herself running through the various sexual traumas that have been a mainstay in her life—being groped by a carnival ride operator, being lunged at by a man on the sidewalk, being taken out by an older man to be ignored and infantalized. “None of this was rare. Things like this happened hundreds of times. Maybe more. The hatred that vibrated beneath the surface of my girl’s face—I think Suzanne recognized it. […] There was so much to destroy” (350). If she had been at the house on the night of the murders, she realizes, she too could have killed. Girls are dangerous, fueled by their hatred of their almost helplessness in the face of these realities.

The Girls, above all, is not an unfamilar narrative for woman or teenage girls. Girlhood is a fraught experience wherein your survival is entirely based on learning the signs ascribed to being female. Girls learn how to be Girls before they are even given the chance to consider being themselves. Enduring a certain amount of unwanted sexual advances, yearning for an unattainable (and if attained, unsatisfying) romance, in hopes to escape this almost pre-determined unhappiness.

Ultimately, Cline’s work does not say anything new about girlhood traumas; it is nothing that hasn’t been said by Margaret Atwood in Cat’s Eye or by Gish Jen in Mona in the Promised Land or literally any other book about girlhood, but her clever use of the Manson Murder’s female perpetrators as an entry point to these discussions opens up the narrative of acceptable/unacceptable female behavior. Even when these girls believe they have shuffled off the straight world depiction of appropriate femininity, they find themselves in another trap in order to be accepted by their male counterparts. The Girls is not meant to be a book that gives answers, a how-to book on unraveling the patriarchy, but rather, a book that reveals the depth of girlhood trauma and their immense capacity for pain.

Emma Cline’s debut could not have been any stronger and I am excited to see what the future holds for this strong, young voice. I hope to see The Girls become a critical text for young women, as an acknowledgement of the universality of their pain, but also as a critical text for readers across the board.

The Year of Women

Here is a sampling of my favorite books of all time:

Each book is beautiful in its own way—Pynchon’s book an exploration of early ’70s California, Berendt’s an outsider’s view of the unique social ecosystem of mid-’80s Savannah; and Mitchell’s an expansive look at a universal connectivity. They are all precious, defining works for my life.

They overlap in many ways, as books with universal themes tend to do, but they share one slightly infuriating commonality—each was authored by a middle-aged white man.

On New Year’s Day, when everyone sets impossible lofty goals for themselves, I laid out a pretty difficult challenge for myself. My personal challenge, which should have been getting more excercise or eating more of those leafy greens, was simple. Read more books by women.

As an English Literature graduate of a women’s college, I have been hyper-aware of the contributions women make in the field of literature. So when I found that I was almost always reading books written by white men when I had free time, I was startled. I almost felt like a fraud. In my tendency to overcorrect, I started to compile a list of titles by women that I wanted desperately to read: The Awakening by Kate Chopin, Beloved by Toni Morrison, literally anything by the Brontë sisters, and the title that I still can’t believe I haven’t read—The Handmaiden’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. (I can’t believe that I can call myself a women’s college grad without having read Atwood’s most famous, most influential work!)

After a month at the Publishing Institute, I realized that I needed to be keeping up with current buzz books and bestsellers to be worth a damn in the industry. And so the challenged was updated: read more current books written by women. 

And of course, the consistent New Year’s lifestyle change goal: write more. 

The year is more than halfway finished now (although it feels as if it cannot end fast enough) and I’ve more or less been able to meet my standards, but this blog will operate as a way to publicly gloat  write more consistently about the women-written books that I am reading.