Don’t deliver us from evil: High school hell in Girls on Fire
Somebody Exorcised Your High School Livejournal and Published It With the novel Girls on Fire, Robin Wasserman illuminates the inner violence of a teenager
If you enjoy reading Electric Literature, join our mailing list! We’ll send you the best of EL each week, and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming submissions periods and virtual events.
With the novel Girls on Fire, Robin Wasserman does not illuminate what compels teenagers to murder each other and commit impulsive acts of violence. She zooms in on the frenzy of ideas whirring between two girls blasting music in a Buick until their urges exceed their grasp. She empathetically captures what is at work when one person is seen by another and somebody thinks: “I don’t know why I did it, except that life was small and this seemed huge.”
Prior to Girls on Fire, Wasserman wrote for young adults, and this book addresses in the older reader the desire to have read something like this when they were young, a little distance willed between that self and the present self. Some of the novel’s darkness comes from scenes of torture and cruelty, but just as frightening is the naïveté, the poses the characters assume, the reader’s knowledge that the urgency the characters experience will wane and keep life small forever compared to their consequences.
In the rust belt wasteland of Battle Creek, Pennsylvania, high schooler Hannah Dexter wants to become what classmate Lacey Champlain sees in her. Dex, who thinks of herself as an easily railroaded nonentity, needs Lacey to affirm that there is something not invisible in her, something cool and powerful that attracts dangerous Lacey. Lacey, who thinks of herself as too much, as offensive to the sensibilities of anyone who thinks of themselves as good, needs Dex to affirm that there is something out there she can’t destroy (all the while refusing to acknowledge Dex’s fortitude, chalking Dex’s commitment up to how she herself has captivated the girl).
The vivid flashes of sex and violence may be perceived as adult material, but they are the fruits of ideas about lust and power that coalesce in the teen years when one is straining to see what one can be in another, in their eyes and in their bodies. When Lacey contemplates testing Dex’s loyalty, she does so by taking advantage of Dex’s dad and his bad boundaries. It’s inevitable as weather that an older man will look at a younger girl and want to forget who he is and become only what she sees and (he wishes) needs. Wasserman depicts it as the low blow it is and does not let Dex’s dad off the hook for how he allowed his insecurity to inform his behavior.
Without Lacey, I was incapable of wildness, that’s what he was telling me. When I had Lacey, he had a little piece of her, too, could love me more for the things she saw in me. Now that she was gone, he expected I would revert to form. I would be the good girl, his good girl, boring but safe. He was supposed to want that.
Nothing feels genuine about the way the characters interact, especially when it comes to Dex and Lacey interacting with other teenagers, and that is because those interactions are not genuine — the baiting, posturing, and acting. The characters perform in order to live up to each other’s ideas of what they’re supposed to be, and it is one of the most effective facets of the novel. It makes for a chilling and familiar experience, like coming upon a Livejournal from high school that alludes to a crime you cannot remember committing.
Nikki told us how in sixth grade she’d gotten bored with her then best friend, Lauren, and convinced all the other girls in their group to ice her out for the rest of the year. I remembered this: I had joined the I Hate Lauren club — which never existed as anything more than a membership list circulated to half the class, then left anonymously on Lauren’s desk the next morning, just as the I Hate Hannah list had the year before — not because I did hate Lauren, but because it seemed to have slipped into the zeitgeist that Lauren was hateable, and it was safer to be against than for.
As much as Girls on Fire resembles real incidents of brutality between American teenagers, it explicitly recalls the true story that inspired Peter Jackson’s 1994 film Heavenly Creatures, about two high school girls desperate to get lost in each one’s idea of the other, to be seen as great and part of an epic tale, to become a piece of the art they make together. But the central characters in Heavenly Creatures, Pauline and Juliet, commit murder in order to prevent their separation and the shattering of their shared world, and as a result, they are unable to ever see each other again. Dex and Lacey feel themselves coming apart and commit murder in order to get fully lost in one another, prevented from truly being seen by anyone else ever again.
The fragmented incident that incites the climax — which sees Dex throttled through humiliation after humiliation — retrofits a current phenomenon to the novel’s Nevermind-era setting. The contemporary flavor of the brutality in the novel (readers are exposed to so many reports that sound like the events of Girls on Fire that it seems of a piece with daily events of 2016) relieves the trappings of small-town counter-culture, of corsets and lipstick and Nirvana, from being implicitly blamed as an accessory to the characters’ cruelty.
Narrating alternating chapters, Dex and Lacey get space to articulate their motivations as the humiliations accumulate — someone wakes up after a night of drinking covered in inked-on epithets, someone gets offloaded to a church — and when they take revenge, they do not pay for it. It does not feel right to characterize them as having gotten away with it, and the ambiguity is appropriate — it wouldn’t feel right to get satisfying closure from a story about violence. The reader of today knows better. The darkness and Satanic appurtenances of Girls on Fire are ornamental to the very relatable loneliness and longing that Dex and Lacey inspire in each other.
In that space, anything can happen.