True Grift

The Guest By Emma Cline. New York: Random House. 304 pages. $28.

The cover of The Guest

WHEN WE FIRST MEET HER, Alex is adrift—literally at sea, floating perilously farther away from shore. “What would they see if they looked at Alex?” she wonders, gazing on the rest of the beachgoers. “In the water, she was just like everyone else.” 

At first glance, Alex appears like any other young woman enjoying a day at the beach, her “thin brown hair cut at her shoulders.” Alex had learned early on “that she was not beautiful enough to model,” but was “tall enough and skinny enough that people often assumed she was more beautiful than she was. A good trick.” At twenty-two, she is still young enough to pull off this particular optical illusion.

This is how Emma Cline introduces the protagonist of her new novel, The Guest. Though Alex, as we soon learn, isn’t like the other girls at the beach. She’s merely an interloper—the guest of Simon, a fifty-something art dealer who invites her to his Long Island summer home after they meet at a bar in New York City. A sex worker by trade (though Simon doesn’t know this), Alex is fluent in the art of playing someone’s girlfriend. Well accustomed to being on display, she approaches the maintenance of her physical appearance “with all her careful labor.” For Alex, the project of passing in Simon’s world is difficult to parse from the work of being beautiful. 

The objectification of women is a central theme in Cline’s fiction, though perhaps never so overtly as in The Guest, where it manifests through the naked commodification of its heroine. And Cline, no stranger to the gendered projections and intrigues that come with public exposure, is herself an object lesson of sorts. When news broke in 2014 of her $2-million, three-book advance from Random House, at the age twenty-five, few articles failed to note her youth and appearance, even if coyly veiled in references to her as a “literary darling” and “starlet.” (That the writer, who grew up in Sonoma, California, was once an aspiring child actress was also frequently invoked.) Part of Cline’s aura stemmed from the titillating premise of her debut novel, The Girls (2016), which fictionalizes the Manson murders from the perspective of Evie, a fourteen-year-old girl drawn to the cult by “the gaudy, prickling tease” of another young woman. In contrast, Cline’s short story collection Daddy (2020) explores the entwinement of sex and power by focusing on “the twilight years of a certain male figure.” Her most notable depiction of this subject, however, may be found in her widely read New Yorker short story “White Noise,” which dramatizes the inner life of Harvey Weinstein on the eve of his final trial verdict. “It wasn’t a conscious thing,” explained Cline, when asked why she attends to such monstrous figures, “I think it’s a function of living in this society, [where] you’re forced to imagine what’s going on in the minds of men.”

Yet if Cline’s fiction about aging men affords them a perverse excess of interiority, then her portrayal of young women risks doing, if anything, the opposite. The heroine of The Guest might be described as leaning into her own objectification—claiming it, however uneasily, as a form of empowerment. In Alex’s line of work, appearances are everything—though the smooth facade starts to crumple early on. (At one point, she describes the “faint wrinkle” between her brows as a “ghostly coin slot.”) Alex’s retreat at Simon’s is cut short after she dents his car and commits the party foul of jumping in the pool with the hostess’s much younger husband. He has his assistant buy her a one-way ticket back to Manhattan, not realizing that Alex has no home to return to. Her roommates have since changed the locks because she stole from them one too many times, while a menacing ex keeps blowing up her phone for, we suspect, similar reasons.

Rather than have Alex confront her past transgressions, Cline doubles down and sends her protagonist drifting further into the deep end. Alex convinces herself that Simon only needs time to cool off. All she has to do is wait him out—mostly by swimming in other people’s pools until she can swim in his again. The rest of the plot is structured by Alex’s torturously simple goal: if she can survive on the island for just six more days, until Simon’s annual Labor Day party, he’ll surely welcome her back. This is where The Guest starts reading like a video game concocted by the Marquis de Sade, with Alex dodging increasingly disastrous obstacles in her quest to return as Simon’s guest. Turns out, a lot can go wrong in six days. 

As Alex starts losing her grip, readers might expect her to turn to backstory, dredging up biographical details that could explain her deviant, often self-destructive, behavior. But Cline’s narration lingers stubbornly, stickily, on the surface. As the author notes in interviews, her aim was to avoid what she calls “trauma math,” in which some primal wound would illuminate her character’s actions. Rather than have Alex look inward, Cline draws her out through other means—by, you might say, looking outward. Alex gradually comes into focus not through what she says about herself, but what she imagines other people see when they look at her. Cline writes Alex out of “negative space”—manifesting her contours through how she interfaces with the world, what she notices in it.

This kind of aggressively spectral heroine—thin in more ways than one—seems increasingly a mainstay of contemporary Anglophone fiction. As with Rachel Cusk’s recent protagonists, they’re known more through their characterological outlines than their interior motivations. Or like Sally Rooney’s brittle heroines, they work through their inner wounds by worrying their outer ones. Alex is forever picking away at her body—as if one way to confirm whether this body can feel is to test whether it bleeds when pricked. 

Pavlina Alea, Neos, 2022, acrylic on linen, 48 × 72". © Pavlina Alea, courtesy of the artist
Pavlina Alea, Neos, 2022, acrylic on linen, 48 × 72". © Pavlina Alea, courtesy of the artist

Cline’s prose blooms with descriptions of precarious exteriors—and not just Alex’s. The novel paints a world of carefully maintained veneers, from the “seamless” lawns, “green flat and unchanging,” to “the illuminated swimming pools that dotted the landscape.” But The Guest largely remains at the level of mere forms, rarely venturing to probe what might be troubling the waters beneath such glistening stillness. Indeed, Cline’s narration might be described as literally superficial—her observations only lighting on the surface of an encounter. More often, Alex actively seeks to short-circuit the full intake of a scene. When inspecting the damage after crashing Simon’s car, “she kept her gaze a little blurry—better, for the confession, if Alex didn’t know the full extent of the damage.” Regarding her unceremonious dismissal: “she replayed their last conversation with a mental squint.”

Cline’s close-third-person narration often looks like intense sociological precision, a stream of keen interpersonal observations filtered through Alex’s squinting eyes. What emerges is an uncanny impression of a realist world, populated and furnished with a plausible cast of realist characters. While Alex appears to be an acute reader of her social environment, she’s a reluctant reader of her own self. Throughout the novel, Alex is constantly on the move, a temporary guest in every group she meets—and, perhaps more fundamentally, a stranger to herself. Alex keeps getting in her own way, as though hoping to control her increasingly untenable arrangement by precipitating any inevitable calamities before they catch up with her first. One could say that Alex possesses a relentless death drive, though The Guest—unlike Freud’s theory—offers no origin story for her impulsiveness. Like any good gothic plot, Cline’s novel rivets as it follows Alex into progressively fatal encounters. But the inverse is also true: as the hazards compound, readers struggle to grasp what exactly is psychologically motivating Alex, given the notable absence of sociological background.

Instead, what Cline has created is a heroine who, in order to keep self-reflection at bay, must herself actively pursue self-annihilation. For most of The Guest, Alex is on some kind of painkiller—an attempt to “stitch the looser hours together,” to blur and maybe blot out her actions. Frequently she dissociates, waking up to inspect her own body like the site of a crime scene (“Alex must have gone swimming . . . how else had her hair gotten wet?”). The effect is mesmerizing, almost compulsively so. But like the Manson girls from Cline’s debut novel, Alex here remains a black box. 

How long can someone maintain such profound self-delusion? And what kind of patience does it demand from readers? In John Cheever’s “The Swimmer,” a clear intertext for The Guest, the protagonist’s delusion is stretched over the course of a hazy afternoon. But what Cheever’s short story executes in a few thousand words, Cline’s novel drags out over three hundred pages—a test of endurance for both Alex and, you might suspect, the reader. 

The Guest culminates, as promised, with Alex crashing Simon’s Labor Day party: a rapprochement between capital and labor. But the novel never takes us past this long-anticipated moment. Instead, it ends much as it begins—in a scene of suspended looking. Spotting Simon across the lawn, “looking as he had always looked,” Alex smiles in his direction. When he doesn’t move, she wonders whether “it was possible that Simon didn’t recognize her.” 

By the end of the novel, Alex must finally confront that she’s no longer a guest, but an intruder. Though for those observing from the outside, it could be argued that the line between the two is never so clear to start. For if Alex is not like the other girls on the beach, she’s not quite like the other workers tending to the Hamptons elite, either. In contrast to these service and gig laborers, the contradiction underwriting Alex’s existence remains that her kind of work is ultimately one that can never quite avow itself as work. In this way, Alex stays in character for all of The Guest, as she moonlights (and daylights) as pretend girlfriend, flirtatious dinner date, and fake friend to another woman. Given the narrative demands placed on this character—a worker who’s never off the clock—it’s a trick that can only be sustained for so long. 

Jane Hu is a critic living in Los Angeles.