Nausea—c’est moi: in Emma Cline’s second novel, a lonely young woman seduces and self-destructs her way through a summer
of Hamptons-like parties.
The Guest, by Emma Cline, Random House, 291 pages, $28
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Critics were suspicious when Emma Cline shot to fame in 2016, at age twenty-seven, with her debut novel, The Girls. James Wood’s New Yorker review exemplifies the conventional wisdom on Cline that still carries to this day. He wrote that her style “can be too brilliant—overwritten, flashing rather than lighting. . . . It is a style hospitable to the senses but not especially conducive to thought, to exposition or analysis.” I’ve heard this critique leveled at many young novelists, and it’s often true. But in Cline’s case, it’s not. The way her writing is hospitable to the senses represents the highest form of thinking.
Her new book, The Guest, at first seems to be about class, status, and power. It takes place “out east” (a stand-in for Long Island), an ocean-side land of summer parties whose hostesses “bleat” inane things such as, “Our art needs more technology and our technology needs more art.” On the surface, the twenty-two-year-old female protagonist, Alex, shares much in common with legendary larcenist Anna Sorokin, who always looked the part. Both women know how to survive by reflecting people’s regard for themselves. The Guest observes the upper crust with a kind of perky cynicism but is less didactic than, for example, White Lotus or the many other pop products that satirize the rich while inviting the audience to identify with them. Class analysis is loose, like a tube of sunscreen groped for at the bottom of a tote bag. The novel is only tentatively social, despite its setting. Instead, Cline puts her fearsome talents to work depicting the deeply destructive capacity of a lone mind that is utterly sick of itself. Like a writer, Alex has an exacting gaze, a cold heart, and too little tact.
Alex’s precarity surely inflames her distress. But her Highsmithian disquiet stems from thornier existential questions, such as how we exist in time. She’s always trying to carve up the clock into chewable sections: “So many more hours to get through,” “the hours that would have to pass before it was nine seemed interminable,” “until then, hours to waste.” Still, Alex keeps telling herself that things will work out: “Time had started to feel a little slurred, a little unreal. It was intolerable, in a way. Unbearable. But then, it had been tolerable, hadn’t it? Because here she was.” At a peak moment of suffering, Alex escapes the present but only to mock herself: “All of this would be funny, in retrospect.”
Before she got to the island, Alex’s life was no joke. Hustling to make ends meet as a sex worker, she routinely alienated everyone: hotel managers, maître d’s, roommates, and, most dangerously, a guy named Dom, who constantly calls and texts her throughout the book, leaving the reader as harried and frantic as the protagonist. Out east, Alex is a sickly charmer and a pain-pill gobbler; a screen for everyone’s projections; the personification of “here comes trouble”; and, after a falling-out with her fifty-something boyfriend, Simon, who had whisked her to the island, she becomes an outcast who wanders from mansion to mansion, pool to pool, garden to garden. She crashes parties, seduces the help, forms inappropriate bonds with teenagers, and slowly but surely cracks up. Like Neddy in John Cheever’s story “The Swimmer,” Alex is delusional and despised, which becomes apparent to both her and the reader. But even during her worst moments, it was clear to me—a classic enabler—that other people were at fault.
The island residents rely on a class of constantly watchful assistants, hovering around their employers and smoothing all of life’s little frictions. Cline also relies on them; they’re the only ones who can see Alex clearly. Consider Lori, who commutes an hour both ways to care for Simon. She guards his life via two cell phones and checks his dog for ticks “with unbroken attention that bordered on the erotic.” And when it’s time to eject Alex from Simon’s orbit, Lori cheerfully drives her to the train while Simon ducks her. Yet, it’s not only that Lori can see through Alex. The reverse is also true: “Alex studied Lori’s face. Lori hated Simon, had always hated him—that was obvious now. Strange Alex had not noticed it before.” Alex, Cline, and the assistants all have dangerous knowledge. They refuse to look away when people show who they really are. Simon is a “professionally healthy,” tightly wound neat freak. But Alex catches him with his guard down: “Simon took a jar of peanut butter to the couch, eating with fastidious care until it was empty, the spoon licked clean by his surprisingly pink tongue. He gazed sadly into the scraped jar, as if offended by the sight.”
In The Guest, Alex notices so much that it literally hurts to read. That’s the pain of seeing the world through another’s eyes. Mere exposition or analysis would seem shriveled compared to the full force of these feelings. When Alex vapes with a bartender on break, she flirts with him out of habit but balks at the kiss: “His mouth didn’t smell bad but it was too near and emanating something, some overwhelming human element.” Later, Alex and a teenager illegally occupy an empty vacation house, where she looks forward to swimming. When she pulls back the pool cover, though, she finds that “the water was dirty. Biscuit-colored foam floated on the surface, visible grit settled on the pool’s bottom.” Alex’s Roquentinian revulsion also connects to her own body. After Simon kicks her out, Alex gathers her clothes. She “folded everything carefully before putting it in the weekend bag. She saw stains she hadn’t noticed on a silk shirt, an aura of sweat in the armpits. All these lovely things she had ruined.” She ruins herself as readily as she ruins lovely things. Cline trusts readers will understand why.
David O’Neill is a writer, editor, and teacher based in Connecticut.