The Stories that Shape Our Stories - An Essay by Claire Messud

Chris Schluep on May 31, 2018
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messud.jpgClaire Messud's The Burning Girl is the story of Julia and Cassie, two friends who have known each other since they were little girls. They have shared everything, including their desire to escape the stifling limitations of their birthplace, the quiet town of Royston, Massachusetts. But as the two girls enter adolescence, their paths diverge.

The book goes into paperback next Tuesday (6/5). With that in mind, here's an essay from Claire Messud about her book The Burning Girl.

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Our teenage years are the crucible in which we are formed. As Wordsworth had it, the child is father to the man; but between childhood and adulthood, each of us must pass through the Charybdis of adolescence, a whirlpool fraught with dangers both physical and emotional, and one from which not all will emerge intact.

My most recent novel The Burning Girl is an exploration of that passage. Narrated by Julia just before her final year in high school, the story revolves around her lifelong best friend Cassie and the unraveling of their friendship. It takes place in three parts: the first unfolds in the summer between 6th and 7th grades, when the girls are 12; the second – which I think of, in a Woolfian way, as “Time Passes” – recalls the middle school years of 7th and 8th grades; and the final section takes place in the spring of the girls’ 9th grade year, their first year of high school, when they are 15 years old.

In the first section, the girls cling still to the imaginary world that is, in childhood, not only allowed but celebrated: a world of make-believe that they spin out for as long as they’re able, in their case among the ruins of a women’s asylum in the woods near their small Massachusetts town. As they pass into their teens, the world becomes ‘real’ around them: kids’ actions suddenly have consequences – they make mistakes; they get drunk or high; they get arrested; sometimes they even get killed. Sexuality washes over them in all its messy complexity. And they must confront questions about the future also. Academic success matters in a new way: Julia is a strong student; Cassie less so. The differences in their family lives separate them, as they never did when they were younger.

There is, in our society, some general sense that ‘growing up’ involves leaving behind childish imaginary worlds and confronting reality. But in fact, proto-adulthood (in this case, the girls’ later adolescence) is rather a matter of switching paradigms, of living in the imaginary in a different way. Cassie invents the family story that she wants and needs for her survival, and runs away from home; while Julia, who has become largely estranged from her old friend, takes what little she knows about Cassie’s movements and imagines her journey for herself, and for the reader. Their stories are no less imaginary (perhaps even more so) than were their childhood games; but they’re played out in the real world.

I wanted to write a novel that could operate on multiple levels, something deceptively simple. I have teenage kids and nieces and nephews, and wanted to create something that they might read and find relevant, a sort of fable or archetypal narrative of American girls’ adolescence. But I wanted, too, to explore the ways in which we are constantly making up stories, and how our sense of the way a story should unfold is informed, unconsciously, by all the narratives that we have experienced and internalized -- whether literature or television or the evening news, or Snapchat or gossip, for that matter. We absorb stories and forget them, but, mulched into our unconscious, they form our store of cultural and human knowledge.

As a mother of a now-teenaged daughter, I became painfully aware as she approached adolescence of the degree to which violence against women and teenage girls is endemic in our culture. There’s standard objectification, of course – the use of teenage girls and their bodies to sell almost everything. But there’s a darker current, a recurring narrative in which girls are sexually exploited and even murdered – it’s at the heart of every police drama on television, and of the most frightening segments on the local news. It’s commonplace in our collective visual imagination. When did you last see a naked dead 65 year old man sprawled in the underbrush at the beginning of an episode?

The result is that girls and young women internalize the notion that in order to be the protagonist of the story, they must be a victim or an object. Paradoxically, this can occur at the same time as they internalize stories of empowerment and success. The results are strange; and the MeToo movement is in some way this generation’s recognition of the fundamental incompatibility of these two trajectories; whereas in earlier generations we’ve simply tried, uncomfortably, to hold them both in our heads simultaneously.

To change the culture, we must change the stories. If we’re comprised as much of our literarily lived lives as of our literally lived lives, then creating truer narratives will in time alter how we understand ourselves and the world around us. Part of what that truth entails is an embrace of mystery, ambiguity and uncertainty: the more certain a narrative, the less true it is. In life, we almost always lack all the necessary information. Too often, we gloss over the gaps, we fill them in, because we dislike uncertainty, and we want to shape our stories so that they are tidy and satisfying.

But that’s not true to life; and indeed, the murkiness of adolescent experience is an ideal example. When you’re a teenager, a lot of the time you don’t quite know what’s going on. You’re figuring it out. As a kid, you imagine that someone else at least knows what’s happening; by the time you’re a teenager, you don’t trust the adults anymore, and even if you’re pretending to know yourself, you haven’t really got a clue. In that sense, adolescence is the most honest time of our lives, before we devise the masks and veils with which we want to protect ourselves from life.

It’s also a time of great sensory intensity. My memories of my own early adolescence are so powerful. As it happens, many of them took place in France. Growing up, my sister and I spent summers with our French grandparents in Toulon, and hung out with a group of friends we adored and thought were totally cool. Almost twenty years ago, I wrote a novel based in part on that time – The Last Life, titled in French La Vie Après. All the textures of those summers – the whispering breeze, the heavy lunches, the sawing cicadas and recurring thud of waves on the rocky shore, the baking sunlight falling dappled through the pines, the whiff of those trees, of rosemary and lavender, the hot stones underfoot – all are as vivid to me as if they were present here now, more vivid than anything that happened two weeks ago. When you’re a teenager the world is still new, everything is extraordinary. But whereas a child just accepts it all, a teenager thinks it’s theirs to conquer. If only life could always remain as vivid.

Finally, I’d like to say that The Burning Girl is, for me at least, an enactment of the idea that we’re indelibly imprinted by the literary or narrative experiences that mean the most to us. Some stories that shaped this novel include – and this is by no means an exhaustive list: personal experiences of my own and my children’s; various Greek myths; Alain Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes; poetry by Louise Glück; Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse; T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland; poems by Wordsworth; Tintin in Tibet; a variety of films and television dramas, including Picnic At Hanging Rock; news reports, both local and national; and much more. My hope is that for each reader, the novel, which I wrote to be open to entry and interpretation from various angles, will also evoke not only their experiences, but also their own store of remembered texts and narratives.

-Claire Messud


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