Bookforum talks with Joni Murphy

Double Teenage BY Joni Murphy. BookThug. Paperback, 260 pages. $20.

Joni Murphy’s debut novel, Double Teenage, ends with the words, “This is a spell for getting out of girlhood alive,” but it speaks equally well to anyone alert to the ways in which a culture of violence can inflect all aspects of life. Growing up in the American Southwest during the 1990s, Murphy’s two upper-middle-class protagonists are stunned by the murder of Donna Beth, their sometime-babysitter and role model. As they get older, they begin to see that the violence around them is systemic, extending to the routine killings of the narco wars and the way these horrors are normalized until they are reduced to ambient noise. Permeable and boundary-less, aware that all boundaries are false, Celine and Julie struggle to make sense of their environment through sex, romance and drugs, and through fashion, literature, theater, critical theory, and art. Written with a cool but empathic distance, Double Teenage could be the definitive book of the “Young-Girl” as theorized by Tiqqun. It’s also about NAFTA, spectacular serial killings—including the Ciudad Juarez femicides—and media’s comforting lull. Joni Murphy and I discussed these matters by email.

Celine and Julie take their names from Jacques Rivette’s film Celine and Julie Go Boating. How was the movie important to you?

I love the layering of texts in that film. It overtly plays with Alice in Wonderland, with the Arabian Nights, and with a novel by Henry James. I discovered Rivette through David Lynch and it felt like such a relief. Growing up, watching Lynch felt powerful but ultimately sad. His work shows us a lot about repression, toxic families, incest, trauma and repetition, fantasy as escape. His female characters are compelling but trapped and tragic. Rivette plays with similar ideas with a way lighter touch. Celine and Julie is totally beautiful and filmic but it also has a play at its center that deals with repetition and patriarchal violence.

Rivette’s actresses don’t just witness or succumb. They enter the story. Their vitality makes a mockery of James’s airless family melodrama—but they don’t just go into fiction to make fun of it. They intervene and save the little girl from her repeated murder. Celine and Julie witness violence but they don’t run away. They think about it, they go back to the scene of the crime in order to study it, to disrupt the next act of violence and change the story. So Celine and Julie are these hopeful characters who suggest there’s a way out of the compulsive, repetitive cycles of trauma.

The Celine and Julie in your novel are both only children of parents who came to Las Cruces, New Mexico to teach at the local college. To the adults, the small desert town is all desert plants, Native American, Old West and Mexican cultures, and big turquoise skies. They seem only vaguely aware that the world their daughters are growing up in is not so benign.

I used New Mexico’s official nickname, Land of Enchantment, to work through the dialectics of girlhood in the Southwest. Enchantment suggests magic, power, but also denial: concealment of what’s going on. The parents’ version of New Mexico does exist. The desert has that extreme beauty—the Technicolor skies and strange animals. Many people are attracted to the Southwest because of Wild West or New Age ideas, but when you actually grow up there you experience the region’s other side. It’s this frayed edge of the American empire. It’s long been treated as a container for the toxic and the strange. Those who live there know it has pervasive poverty and a strong military industry presence.

NAFTA was signed into law in 1993, when Celine and Julie are thirteen. Books like The Femicide Machine, Making a Killing, and Murder City describe the relationship between border violence and free trade. I think we’re able to see this in hindsight. But at the time it was not all that clear. Celine and Julie come of age in an emerging neoliberal horrorscape, but they don’t have anything to compare it to—other places and other ways of living are a fantasy for them. And the adults are either in denial or have a hard time describing how free trade is reshaping the border region.

It’s a very internal novel, but Celine and Julie aren’t introspective or self-analytical in any conventional way. They’re intelligent kids but they just sort of drift into the local college before eventually opening their eyes and realizing they’ve got to escape. They live in a kind of torpor, highly aware of small things, but without any particular plan. It’s a state of mild trauma that feels normal to them.

I think of it as ambient trauma. If you’re aware and empathetic, I don’t think you can help but feel traumatized by and guilty about the US state, or the state of the US. These girls are not dealing with their own rapes, no one tried to murder them, but rape and murder are recurrent themes and events in our culture. That takes a psychic toll on everyone. It has to. These girls are sensitive and they’re picking up on cultural trauma whether it’s being discussed or not. They’re guilty and privileged and victimized, all at once.

I wonder what you think. Do you think trauma is contagious or cultural or always has to have clear individual roots?

I always question the roots. What I love about Double Teenage is the way you demonstrate cultural trauma as a lived and unconscious thing. It’s similar to what I tried to depict in my novel Summer of Hate, set during the Bush years.

I read Summer of Hate right when it came out and it made a big impact. Your descriptions of Albuquerque—the dilapidated strip malls, the substance abuse and recovery programs, the smart people in dead-end jobs—touched me. You described a place I knew in a way I recognized. Summer of Hate gave me some permission I hadn’t known I needed. And there was this thing you said in an interview with Giampaolo Bianconi, that if we don’t try to process our recent history, we lose “the ordinariness, and the pettiness, and the banality.” I kept coming back to that as I wrote. I told myself it was my job to depict honestly the kinds of people I knew growing up, how it felt to be a girl within the shifting contexts of the Clinton and Bush years. We shouldn’t forget. I’ve been thinking about that again because of all the wild xenophobia and border fear getting stirred up for the election. I keep asking, Did we get a collective concussion? We’ve been down these roads before and they go to some dark places.

The two girls are trying to make sense of their world as best they can. Celine cuts herself, Julie goes out with Miguel, the dangerous boyfriend. Later, Julie studies critical theory and Celine goes to art school. They do all the readings, but the real knowledge is transmitted through social codes, where the boys do all the talking. When Celine gathers cheap acrylic blankets for an installation to evoke the blanket-wrapped corpses along the border, all her teachers and classmates can see is “the history of textiles, the history of performance.”

Growing up, I thought that once I got into the more elite realms of art and higher education there would be less violence, but it just gets more insidious and subtle. The art world is especially good at creating loopholes. You can watch Narcos on Netflix, do cocaine at an art party, but because you’ve studied Teresa Margolles’s work, you’re not complicit. You’re just playing with ideas. The US as a country and a market is overwhelmingly the engine for the drug trade and yet I’ve heard so many people say, overtly or subtly, That’s not our problem. I think something similar can go on in the university. You begin to think that because you can see problems, you’re above them. Because you took a class on feminist theory, you’re totally different, culturally.

The girls in the book are taught how to think about the dead female body in art but not in real life. The female body is fetishized, objectified, and policed at every level of society. That is a total fact. Women can’t just get into the art world or the academic world and escape that pressure.

I wanted to describe this frisson of young girls who are interested in text and subtext. They are picking up on the overt and covert messages that your sexuality is dangerous to your wellbeing. The message is that girls risk everything from shaming to murder when they mess around sexually. But even with or perhaps because of this pressure, they still take these risks because the rewards can be pleasure and praise and excitement. Risk becomes part of turn-on, but this also creates trauma and guilt. These girls are dealing with the internal voice that says, I shouldn’t want to play with violence but I do and that makes me a slut, and in this world anything can happen to a slut.

And in Double Teenage, it does. Celine and Julie are miles apart from the street prostitutes butchered near where Julie lives in Vancouver, but their relations with “normal” boyfriends are fraught with menace and violence. Celine describes being ashamed about the rough sex she had with a college boy when she was sixteen. It was something she wasn’t supposed to like, but she did. You write about upsetting events with great dispassion. The narrator still hasn’t lost the flood of awareness that comes with adolescence, but she’s detached and wise. Were you trying to enact your own version of Tiqqun’s Young-Girl?

I think so. Tiqqun’s book was a tough read because it is so simultaneously coy and combative. They both use and disavow the young girl in a way I felt needed a response. On the one hand, they write that “the Young-Girl is obviously not a gendered concept.” They say they’re using “Young-Girl” as a term to describe self-commodification, to explore how we’re encouraged or forced to think and behave as products. I like their ideas even though they’re painful. I didn’t want to reject them, or turn and say, Yeah, well, what about the man-child? I felt their work required an argument by way of acceptance and amplification.

Walter Benjamin said, “Baudelaire never once wrote a whore-poem from the perspective of the whore.” Basically, he is admitting that neither he nor Baudelaire could imagine being a girl. Maybe it was too frightening for them to imagine. Tiqqun follows in this line: The Young-Girl, like the prostitute, is a commodity-being, but not one who can speak beyond the level of beauty magazines. So I wanted to write from the inside out and accept the young girl both as a figure and a reality. So many times, girls or sex workers are used as symbols without an examination of what that repetition and use does. Interviewing Charles Bowden, Alice Driver questioned his use of the term whore in his writings about Juarez. She asked him to distinguish between the words prostitute (a job) and whore (a state of being), but he wouldn’t admit that dehumanization was happening at the level of his word choice. Bowden wrote brilliantly about Juarez, but he always belittled the part gender played in the violence along the border. Partly, Double Teenage examines some of the ways in which women and girls are made into inhuman entities. How does it affect someone to be told they’re not a person, they’re a symbolic figure? How much of being a young girl is dissociating from your internal state in order to better perform for others?

As I was writing, I thought about the difference between sleeping with someone and being labeled a whore. If you’re a young girl it’s tough to believe that the difference is clear, so self-hate and judgment become normal. There are all these teenage girls out there, living through profound philosophical concepts without necessarily being equipped to talk about them. I was certainly not equipped when I was young.

Chris Kraus is the author of four novels, most recently Summer of Hate, and two books of art and cultural criticism. She is presently working on a critical biography of the American writer Kathy Acker.