Alice Bolin’s debut essay collection opens with a strong and intriguing premise: what is this obsession America (and beyond) has with dead girls? The murdered or missing blonde white ones of media frenzies; the ones that get forgotten after serving as engines for outrage in programs like Serial; the innocent and martyred ones (or else murdered sex workers – equally canvas for projections) that TV dramas are built up around; the ones who form the catalyst for popular crime fiction?
In the introduction, “Girls, Girls, Girls”, Bolin explains,
My interest in the boy heroes of Twin Peaks and in Raymond Chandler spawned the first essays for this book, which began as an exploration of the noir mysteries of the American West and ended up as something more like a survival guide, as the violence I studied hit ever closer to me. Like other writers before me, I have tried to make something about women from stories that were always and only about men.
This is a fascinating and complex topic, and I would’ve read an entire book about it. The theme is brought up in multiple pieces here, complemented with feminist references and ideas about women’s roles in culture, literature, the world in general and their own lives in particular, but beyond the first few essays the themes diverge and don’t always come together harmoniously or sensibly.
Bolin does hit some very high points in her exploration of this topic, which makes it worth reading. “There can be no redemption for the Dead Girl, but it is available to the person who is solving her murder,” she writes, referring to the FBI agent from Twin Peaks, Rust and Marty from True Detective‘s first season, and Adnan from Serial, among myriad others. Yes, exactly – more of this, please.
But the dead girls get left behind and forgotten, like they always do. Here, in favor of living but discussed-to-death “girls” like Britney Spears, Lana Del Rey (please no) and Alexis Neiers, a reality TV rich girl and drug addict convicted in the “Bling Ring” crime spree. Not to mention Joan Didion, who seems like she was never a “girl” but this is far more a book to do with her than it is with any of the dead girls of this most strange of “American obsessions”.
All of the essays have a heavy personal memoir aspect threaded throughout, but they’re classier than the average personal essay. Despite the navel-gazing they remain literary and well written. It was an interesting glimpse into twenty-something LA life.
My biggest gripe beyond topics that are neither “essays on surviving an American obsession” nor were they particularly compelling in their critical look at fairly throwaway pop culture or literature that’s either esoteric or already analyzed to death, is that they rely too heavily on outside sources. They’re like reading my book reviews – hopping pull-quote to pull-quote and trying to follow the connection. But with more Joan Didion.
“Believing what I read more than my own eyes was only part of my problem, since I also did not read the right things,” Bolin laments at one point, and I’m mostly inclined to agree. The literary analysis reads too academic and heavy-handed unless you also share her interests and can follow the meandering trail of one book or article flitting on to the next.
A frequent exploration is pop music, which maybe also didn’t click for me because I could take it or leave it but I definitely don’t enjoy analyzing it. But I appreciated some of her well made points, like “I’m not reading too much into the song. Pop music can speak deep truths because it is simple, because the truest truths are simple,” from “Lonely Heart”, one of the more interesting pieces among several touching lightly on Britney Spears and her infamous, well-documented public meltdown.
But again, it felt like drawing too heavily on other work. She analyzes Britney by telling readers what Vanessa Grigoriadis’ Rolling Stone piece about her said, for one example of many. Or an article about Lindsay Lohan, and literary analysis of Didion’s Play it as it Lays. I think there are a lot of readers who love this quasi-academic, pop culture-heavy style, looping in a long and eclectic reading list, but it’s not for me.
Elsewhere she defends Lana Del Rey’s shtick, ties it to a very light study of Lolita and incorporates a story about a precarious LA roommate situation. It doesn’t feel as connected as the common perceived themes would indicate.
As it progresses, the topics get repetitive: I lost count of how many times watching Dateline is noted, the slang and of-the-moment cultural references feel like they’re going to be quickly dated, and the endless Joan Didion mentions, analyses and obsession are too much. I say that as a Didion fan. A mega-fan will be thrilled.
Didion is one of the essential essayists of the twentieth century, and all great nonfiction writers examine how the coherence we expect from storytelling is incompatible with the contradictions and competing truths of real life. I think of Janet Malcolm, who over her twelve books has considered the way narrative is created in psychology, journalism, and biography: the artificial order each lays over real life. Malcolm writes in The Journalist and the Murderer: As every work of fictions draws on life, so every work of nonfiction draws on art.
She has some brilliant lines, often when recounting family stories or her tumultuous time in LA, where she’d moved alone from the Midwest – “adjusting to small miseries did not mean I was not miserable.”
I believed that having an experience, even a messy one, was the way to tell the city you belonged.
These kind of lines and storytelling speak to me, and I think to many readers, and maybe just young women who’ve moved out into the world alone and had a shitty time of it; it’s why the “Goodbye to All That” essay style is so cathartic and beloved.
Bridging a gap between “high” and “low” culture, she also writes extensively about trash TV like MTV reality shows stretching back to the late 90s/early 2000s, arguing, “The reality soap opera is a form that has been unfairly ignored by our popular critics.” NO. It has not. Neither did the argument given convince me.
In an essay about an intense and manipulative female friendship likened to a teen horror movie about werewolves and suicide (I think?) I read a line that annoyed me and made me automatically question the veracity of everything else: “I remember a particularly long and hangry journey deep into Brooklyn to get an inexpensive breakfast I had read about on the Internet, the insane amount we spent on subway fare neutralizing any savings from the cheap diner.”
A oneway trip on the NYC subway at that time, which I’m certain of based on her age and since she’d graduated college pre-trip, without buying any unlimited pass, was $2. That’ll get you from the corner of Queens to the farthest border of Brooklyn, and another $2 would get you all the way back. That’s an incredible deal. Cities like London charge by the distance, where a longer ride through the transit system costs comparatively more. So $4 roundtrip each is an “insane amount”? What the hell do the buses in LA cost, nickels? They would’ve had to spend that no matter where they went to breakfast in any of the five boroughs, unless they walked. It probably offset the costs of their breakfast, sure, maybe, but it’s not insane by a long shot and it bothered me endlessly. It was indicative of a habit of fluffing up small details into story points that stuck out awkwardly and happened several times throughout.
Some truly excellent writing and some equally excellent and very smart cultural analysis on the deserving topic of our dead girl obsession that I wish had been book-length, an interesting look at being young and untethered in LA through sensitive eyes and good descriptions, but with some too-deep reads into a scattered array of pop-cultural or literary topics/tropes. almost 3/5
Essays on Surviving an American Obsession
by Alice Bolin
published June 26, 2018 by William Morrow (Harper)
I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.