The Guest by Emma ClineI subscribe to the law of contrary public opinion…if everyone thinks one thing, then I say, bet the other way.” –said Ricky Roma in Glengarry Glen Ross, which was written by David Mamet. The playwright also said, “Characters are defined by their actions.” I often adopt the Ricky Roma school of thought, but I live by Mamet’s theory on characters. 

When Emma Cline brought her first novel The Girls into the world, I applied the Ricky Roma attitude. The book business cradled her, and I didn’t meet a single detractor. So, I guess I’m the outlier. I passed on her second book—a collection called Daddy. Why? I don’t know.  

When The Guest was put in my hands last fall, I set it aside, knowing what I know, and feeling how I do, and now of course I’m sorry that I left it for this long. (I hate being told what to read. I’m the ultimate Capricorn.) I’m a fan of bleak, dark, sad, run-the-bathtub prose. Serve me some McCarthy (Cormac not Mary), Cheever, Carver, A.M. Homes (Music for Torching anyone?) and I’m delighted. With this novel, Emma Cline has somehow cornered the market on bleak realism in the 21st century. She falls squarely in millennial camp, and I can eye-roll on that generation with the best of my Gen-X cohorts, but none of that really matters. Jonathan Lethem said you shouldn’t write a novel until you’re forty years old. That’s not true.  

All this to say I couldn’t put The Guest down. I wanted to see where the flawed young woman at the center of the tightly wound anti-hero’s journey would end up (even though she tells us every few pages). Alex is a young person adrift in the current world. No plans. No goals. No hopes, dreams, aspirations, or even a childhood to blame it all on. When we find her, she’s blissfully hovering over Simon, a wealthy man who lives in Long Island. The summer is almost over and Alex has a seasonal clock to live by. How will she navigate the eggshells of wealth and as Lethem says, not rub the cat’s tail the wrong way (paraphrasing Motherless Brooklyn, his greatest achievement) She wants to enjoy Simon’s comfort which oozes from his wealth. How do I know he’s monied? If you live on the tip of Long Island behind a gate, you’re not clipping coupons. Alex does something to embarrass her host/boyfriend/sexual partner/person who funds it all, and off she goes into nothing. She is turned out on the street. Well, it’s not that bad, she is given a train ticket to a city that doesn’t want her. Imagine offending Manhattan so much that you’re not welcome. Color me impressed. It’s an abrupt moment, and if Alex thought Simon was the forever guy, then she needs something stronger than the painkillers she manages to steal off anyone who lets her use their bathroom.   

The situation Alex finds herself in looks like a last-ditch effort to keep her head above water until she can get back in Simon’s good graces. I never once felt bad for Alex. Her only survival setting is using her beauty to sustain her life. That’s fine, but it’s not remunerative, because Alex hasn’t caught on to the cultural peccadilloes of the rich. She only knows how to flatter Simon, usually with sex. She’s careless and obtuse, to put it mildly. She works her diminishing skills on a batch of frat boys, until she sleeps with the wrong one. When it comes to the middle class and normal folk, she is incapable of employing a classy grift, but rather a dull hammer. Not once did I think the attempts at sustaining herself would pan out.

The weird thing that happens is her phone goes in the water at the start of the book. For most people the phone is where it all happens—life, love, information, and self-inflicted loneliness. It’s weird in the sense that a person of that age didn’t hop over to the nearest genius bar and get it fixed. Instead, Alex carries around her phone and tries to bring it back to life. Here and there she does get it to turn on, and this literary device doubles as a problem for the reader. Whenever a phone is picked up in real life, or in fiction, most people turn off. It breaks the spell. Ms. Cline offers this little electronic yolk to strip Alex of her defenses and remind the reader that reality is at the end of your arm.

Sadly, her past is going to catch her, and it lives on the phone. Alex tries to hoodwink the rich and lazy, which she does with a frightening degree of professionalism, meaning when she wants something she turns on the charm, especially when the bubbles are poured. Except when she gets too close to a work of art, then the dew is off the rose. You don’t exactly dislike Alex, she’s a navel-gazer, a survivor, and a bit of wet toilet paper. She’s lucky to have Emma Cline as her spirit guide, otherwise it’s curtains.