24 October 2019

Dead Girls by Alice Bolin

I picked this book up because I've been trying to be more conscious of all the "dead women" media I take in every year. I don't read a lot of thrillers but I do consume A LOT of television and a lot of it involves crimes against women. I was obsessed with the first season of True Detective, I was deeply disturbed by Sharp Objects, and I eagerly await new seasons of Mindhunter, Top of the Lake, and Westworld. I read an interview with the author (Alice Bolin) and thought it would be interesting to learn more about why so many people (myself included) find these stories so compelling.

Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession is only 288 pages and split between more personal stories from the author's life and her examination of pop-culture and how dead women fit into it. The first essay jumps right into it and is pretty up-to-date with TV references.

There can be no redemption for the Dead Girl, but it is available to the person who is solving her murder. Just as for the murderers, for the detectives in True Detective and Twin Peaks, the victim's body is a neutral arena on which to work out male problems."

I found myself feeling almost defensive while reading this essay. I've never gotten into Twin Peaks but I looooved True Detective and their were times I found it frustrating to read about Bolin's complaints. I get that there is something weird about our obsession with graphic murders of women (specifically white women) and I don't want to say "it's just a TV show!" but I also am someone who really likes to watch them, so I guess it's hard to look in the mirror. My larger criticism would be that while Bolin certainly calls out this obsession, she doesn't do a great job of unpacking why we're so obsessed. And that was the main thing I was looking to take away from this book.

Alice Bolin
Bolin starts the book's introduction citing Joan Didion. It's clear throughout the rest of the essays that Bolin really likes Didion's writing but she's never able to get close to it. I recently re-read Didion's essay "Sentimental Journeys" after watching Ava Duvernay's miniseries on the Central Park Five where Didion expertly writes about the way white victims are treated in the press compared to women of colour. Obviously I worship Didion and it's unfair to compare their writing, but by Bolin constantly bringing Didion up it was hard not to make that comparison.

Didion is one of the essential essayists of the twentieth century, and all great nonfiction writers examine how the coherence we expect from storytelling is incompatible with the contradictions and competing truths of real life."

That being said, Bolin is also clearly very interested in the concept of narrative and a lot of her essays deal with storytelling. She grabbed a quotation from Maggie Nelson (author of The Argonauts - a book I own and can't wait to read) which I really loved:

Conventional wisdom has it that we dredge up family stories to find out more about ourselves... to catapult ourselves, like Oedipus, down the track that leads to the revelation of some original crime .. Then we gouge our eyes out in shame."

In Bolin's essay "The Place Makes Everyone a Gambler" she unpacks Didion's book Play It As It Lays (a fictional account of a depressed actress from Nevada) and compares the central character's breakdown to the very public breakdown of pop-star Britney Spears. I actually found this to be the most enjoyable essay in Bolin's collection. It was disturbing to revisit the way we all gleefully watched Spears shave her head in front of paparazzi.

For me, Bolin's writing is at its strongest when she is focusing on our obsession with narrative in general, rather than just tearing apart popular television shows that feature a dead girl.

Our cultural obsession with murder stories and the criminal justice system is a prime example of the impulse to narrativize a reality that is basically unexplainable. For better or worse, narrative is the tool that the system uses to deliver justice: the defence and the prosecution each present their stories, and the one that makes more sense - read as: the more satisfying one - becomes the reality."

The other essay I was interested in was "The Daughter as Detective." The first half of this book deals with a popular Swedish detective series known as The Martin Beck Police Mystery Series and the much more popular Mellennium Swedish series from Stieg Larsson (a.k.a. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo). In it Bolin talks about the authors' motivation for writing these books and how sometimes that got away from them. She also reminded me that the Swedish name for The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is actually Men Who Hate Women (a MUCH, MUCH better title).

But this essay went off the rails for me as soon as Bolin makes it super personal. At first she mentions her father's obsession with these series (which made sense with the narrative) but then she goes into his possible diagnosis as being on the autism spectrum and it feels completely out of place. I couldn't see how this diagnosis connected at all to her original storyline, and I felt it was just crammed in there.

Bolin makes the point in a later essay about how difficult it is to avoid the personal when trying to write nonfiction. She says:

It is very difficult to avoid sentimental narratives in personal essays, given that we romanticize nothing so much as ourselves." 

Unfortunately this personal narrative is what I disliked so much about Dead Girls. I didn't find Bolin to be a captivating personality and I wasn't interested in what her apartment was like. I wish she kept more to the subject matter (re: dead girls) because when she was focused on narrative and these storylines, I found her work to be thought provoking and interesting.

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