Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Marlena (Julie Buntin)

Marlena is the kind of novel that I’d liken to a tumor: it grows inside you, insidiously; it’s an organic part of you; ultimately, it’s fatal. I diagnosed myself stage-by-stage as I read: I detected it, I biopsied it, it turned out to be malignant, and then it killed me.

This is a story about Cat, who moves to a new town and meets Marlena. Marlena is intoxicating: she’s the bad girl archetype fully realized, gorgeous and witty but careless and dangerous. She allows herself to be drawn into the darkness, and once she’s there, you don’t have much of a choice but to join her. It’s a character type that looms large in the contemporary imagination lately, but what makes Buntin’s take distinct is Marlena’s innocence. She’s portrayed here as vulnerable, teetering between intentional manipulation and casual naiveté. Marlena is not the femme fatale, not yet—she never gets wise enough to own herself in that way.

One of the most admirable qualities of this novel is its portrayal of adolescence. A word I see in many reviews is “unflinching,” though I’m not sure that’s the appropriate choice here: it’s not so much that Marlena shies away from anything as it’s so devoted to its perspective that we never question, never doubt, never stop engaging with the fantasy of teenage immortality. Teenagers are, of course, terrible, and they’re terrible here, too, but Cat is honest and clear in describing her friends and their particular terribleness. For a moment, for 300 pages (whichever comes first), you slip outside of your knowing right and wrong, your Adult Smartness™, and remember how infallible you felt in high school.

The book, narrated from the present moment by a thirty-something Cat, alternates between glimpses of her life now and extended narration of the past. The structure is such an intelligent choice for this novel, since it teaches us about Cat’s mental space: this is a story about compartmentalizing and eulogizing and forgetting and remembering, and the balance between the past and the present (or lack thereof) gives us a meaningful understanding of how the past works as scar tissue. It’s not that Cat is, years later, still obsessed with her dead friend. She hasn’t devoted her entire life to memorializing Marlena.

But Marlena will not—cannot—be dismissed. Even in death she is a force of nature that wreaks havoc on someone who escaped her pull not by choice but by accident, and the consequences of those circumstances have left their mark. How can you attain closure when you weren’t trying to suture your wounds at all, but simply woke up to find them stitched?

Buntin avoids depicting loss as an overblown, chapters-long episode of sobbing. It’s far more nuanced, framing the idea of death as a narrative that cannot be rewritten. It rings true for anyone who’s ever played the what-if game: what if I’d just called the ambulance sooner? What if I’d insisted he go to the doctor? What if I hadn’t let her get in the car? It’s the desire to affect change stretched out over decades, and it’s painful and precise. The emotions in this book, and they run the whole gamut, are so genuine and earned—it’s dazzling to submerse yourself in a nonstop torrent of true feelings for and with made-up people.

The book is consistently written stunningly: breathtaking passage supersedes breathtaking passage. That kind of writing can get exhausting, but Marlena’s author is so controlled, so careful with her sentences that it never does. Buntin’s prose is so evocative, so rich with emotion, that inhabiting it for the course of a full novel has the effect of suspending the reader on a high-wire; you’re terrified you’ll fall, but you keep testing your limits to see how long you can hang on.

Ultimately, what I find so satisfying about Buntin’s debut is its willingness not to hide anything: our narrator does not obfuscate. We know early that Marlena dies. We know early Cat moves on. And despite it, the book shivers and shakes with tension—it takes over your body and kills you, page by page. Engrossing, horrifying, delightful.

My rating: 5/5

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