Joanna Scutts is a literary critic and cultural historian, and the author of “The Extra Woman: How Marjorie Hillis Led a Generation of Women to Live Alone and Like It.”
In “Dead Girls,” her sharp-eyed book of essays about literature, pop culture and the fantasies they weave for and about young women, Alice Bolin is never more precise than when putting her finger on her self-doubt. She worries that her book’s arresting title implies a “lurid and cutesy complicity in the very brutality it critiques” and whether pointing out the echoes of Raymond Chandler in the Coen brothers’ film “The Big Lebowski” is “pretty perceptive or totally obvious.” As one essay threatens to sink under the weight of its thesis about the relationship between stories of the occult and postcolonial guilt, she apologizes, “I didn’t intend for this to become a term paper.” This instinct to forestall criticism by pointing out the flaws in her argument is consistent with the way Bolin describes herself elsewhere, as a smart kid hamstrung on the road to maturity by her own cleverness. This defensive undercutting can make her essays frustrating, but it’s a pose that’s appropriate to the larger problem they grapple with: how to grow up in a culture that refuses to do so?
The book begins by exploring the myths of innocence and guilt that recur in both true and fictional crime stories about dead women and their male murderers. Bolin weaves together analyses of a range of media, including the TV show “True Detective,” “Gone Girl,” the podcast “Serial,” “Twin Peaks,” several novels and true-crime journalism, to puncture the myth that men who kill women are special and unknowable, rather than banal products of a culture that teaches them to blame women for their unhappiness. It’s a depressingly relevant insight now, amid regular reports of violent acts committed by angry boys with assault rifles. Drawing on James Baldwin, Bolin shows how innocence migrates from victim to perpetrator, so that it’s the ex-girlfriend who gets the blame for making her murderer feel shame and sadness, emotions from which he believes he ought to be exempt.
In the second section of essays, Bolin shifts perspective, moving from an America where myths are consumed to the strange sun-drenched city where they are produced. She has a keen eye for the uncanny contradictions of California, its self-image as “native, independent and wild” hopelessly at odds with its reality as “immigrant, corporate, and over-developed.” For a while, she writes, she started every essay with “I moved to Los Angeles,” believing it to be “the only brave or interesting thing I had ever done.” Yet her tales of alienation in L.A.’s strange environment of looping freeways, baking sunshine and decentralized development are less memorable than her writing about the “uncanny countryside” around Moscow, Idaho, where she grew up, distinguished by its proximity (relatively speaking) to the site of the Ruby Ridge siege and the Unabomber’s cabin. The region’s remoteness and isolation send an unavoidable message: “The Inland Northwest makes people go nuts.” To put it another, less grandiose way, it is a place for angry white men to feel alone and to feel at home.
Bolin’s home town, with a population of 25,000, experienced two mass shootings in 10 years, one perpetrated by a former classmate. In an essay about witchcraft and its hold on the imaginations of teenage girls, the author recalls a seventh-grade assignment to write out her greatest fear: “I wrote ‘school shootings’ and then quickly erased it, afraid someone would see and, deeper down, that writing it would make it come true.” This unselfconscious moment hints at the terrorizing impact that random gun violence has had on people of Bolin’s generation and younger, which we are only beginning to see reflected in culture.
How does the looming threat of masculine violence reverberate in the life of a young American girl today? For Bolin, it’s a diffuse sort of anxiety — there are no stories here about specific abusive men or toxic relationships. Instead, there is the more troubling question of complicity: the recognition that the special victim status of the Dead Girl is linked to the special privilege of being a (living) white woman. Bolin acknowledges this complicity in the culture at large without always seeing it at work in her own life. During a stint renting a room from a hip-hop producer, she describes how she “screamed bloody murder” at one of several visiting rappers when he startles her, not seeming to grasp the potentially lethal impact of her fear or the history of white women’s vulnerability as a pretext for racist violence. Elsewhere, she cops to “classist and racist pretension” in the belief that her co-workers at a restaurant belong there, while she, a writer, is just passing through. These incidents are revealing of what Bolin calls her “fatal flaw,” of learning everything from books rather than allowing other people to teach her.
To write cultural criticism with authority used to mean erasing any trace of the first person, adopting a stance of quasi-scientific neutrality (read: white and masculine) toward works of art. Bolin, by contrast, insists on the centrality and importance of her own responses to culture, unavoidably colored by her background and experiences. Inspired by a canon of writers, mostly women, who also blend the critical with the personal — Maggie Nelson, Eileen Myles, James Baldwin, Joan Didion — she stakes her ground with a refreshing air of defiance, freely mixing highbrow and lowbrow, late-night cable television with classics of American literature. In her willingness to show herself as a work in progress, thinking through a problem rather than presenting its solution, she leaves breathing room for indecision and revision, ensuring that her writing is always pulsing with life.
By Alice Bolin
William Morrow. 273 pp. $15.99 paperback