Fiction in Review: The Burning Girl: A Novel, by Claire Messud

Marta Figlerowicz

A warmup exercise I do at the gym involves touching the fingertips of my two hands behind my back, parallel to the spine. Approximating this task, which I can never actually accomplish, involves inching my fingers toward each other along my vertebrae until they’re on the edges of a little patch of skin and muscle where I can’t actually touch myself, however hard I strain my joints. Only another person can do it for me.

            Claire Messud’s characters are generally fitter than I am–or so I imagine–but as a rule they struggle with the existential equivalent of this exercise. Dimly aware of the partiality of their laborious efforts at self-awareness, they cannot completely reduce this partiality or take reliable stock of it on their own, even if there is some truth to the piecemeal insights they achieve about themselves. Instead, they wander around like sleepwalkers whom a tap on the shoulder can startle and confuse but never quite awaken. Their unwilled solipsism is all the more vulnerable and paradoxical since the dreamlike, idiosyncratic fantasies with which they respond to it usually involve being deeply intimate with someone, fully knowing and known. In The Burning Girl, Messud’s protagonist, Julia, describes such imagined intimacy with her friend Cassie as “a dream, miraculously, that Cassie and I dreamed in tandem, touching, hearing, and feeling together.” It was, Julia continues, “like being inside both Cassie’s head and my own, as if we had one mind and could roam its limits together, inventing stories and making ourselves as we wanted them to be.” The phrasing of these happy daydreams makes it clear from the start that she’s headed toward disappointment. And indeed, as Messud reveals in the first pages of the novel, her narrator addresses us from a retroactive perspective of loss. “You’d think it wouldn’t bother me now,” is how Julia begins telling her story. The “it,” we are soon told, is the fact that, for reasons she cannot explain, Cassie has stopped talking to her.

            Despite the intense feeling behind this opening assertion, The Burning Girl is not fueled by the pathos of great cognitive distortions. Julia is not a version of the potentially crazed governess of The Turn of the Screw; she is not even a lesser Miss Jean Brody. The patch of unawareness she struggles to palpate is comparatively small. Her version of reality seems almost right, off in ways that Messud’s reader can sense obliquely but cannot fully articulate. That so much futile effort can be spent on these minor adjustments, and all Julia is left with, following this effort, is a sense of resignation to its futility–such is the quiet tragedy, or not-quite-tragedy, that Messud stages.

            This sense of minorness and confusion is a mood that one has come to expect from Messud, and one anticipates it with pleasure. Messud can weave out of seemingly insignificant, unresolved stories a narrative tension that is no less subtle and enticing than the high drama of nineteenth-century psychological narratives. In The Emperor’s Children, the first big novel in which she hit her stride with this narrative method, Messud follows a group of young New Yorkers who slowly discover how unprepared they are for, and how unable they are to process, the pettiness of adult quarrels, affairs, and betrayals. The Woman Upstairs is voiced by Nora, a single woman who feels unaccountably betrayed by a family she befriended. Meanwhile, the reader is made to suspect–though without clear, certain evidence–that what she sees as a betrayal was not so unaccountable, or so much of a betrayal, after all. The Burning Girl follows an analogous form, but is comparatively simpler. Indeed, it often feels like a novella, taking most of its energies out of a single, disconnected event. Told from the vantage point of a young adult narrator named Julia or “Juju,” it centers on her relationship with her childhood friend, Cassie (whose full name, hardly used by anyone, is Cassandra). Cassie and Juju become fast friends in preschool and remain inseparable until puberty, when they become partly, and then definitively, estranged. Speaking to us two years later, the still-childish Julia tries to figure out the reasons for this estrangement.

            At first, it seems that class difference is the common denominator of the various forms of disconnectedness Julia remarks on as she and Cassie start growing apart. Juju is being raised in a relatively well-off middle-class family with a stay-at-home mother; by contrast, Cassie’s mother, Bev, is a widow whose husband died tragically in a car accident when Cassie was very young. At first, both girls and their families treat this dissimilarity as irrelevant, but gradually it becomes less so. The more secure Julia enters puberty uneventfully, if with shy reserve; Cassie jumps into it headlong, with intimations of alcohol and drug use and possibly also unprotected sex. While Julia’s family steers her toward college, Cassie flirts with becoming a high school dropout. In an early intimation of these divergences, Julia describes her mother staring at her friend and the friend’s mother “as if she’d drawn a circle around Bev and Cassie in her mind, and while they stood in the middle of our house, it didn’t mean they belonged there. A look that seemed to say, You aren’t like us. Not entirely.” The mother–generally not a very reliable or likable figure, who at times comes close to a paper cutout of her social type–encourages Julia to accept the gap between her and Cassie as a fact of life: “It happens to everyone, sooner or later, for reasons more or less identifiable; everyone loses a best friend at some point.”

            Thus told, the opening gambit of The Burning Girl seems painfully conventional. But rapidly the plot thickens, and veers toward the more idiosyncratic brand of psychological drama that one has come to expect from Messud. The twist goes as follows: around the time of the two girls’ estrangement, Cassie’s mother embarks on a relationship with a local doctor. The relationship triggers a personal crisis and something close to a psychotic breakdown in Cassie. She acts out, alienates her mother and the mother’s new partner, and eventually runs away from home in search of her real father, who she half-convinces herself is still alive and living with a new family only a few hours away.

            Even though the two girls see each other ever less frequently during this period, Julia’s attachment to her troubled friend intensifies. Deprived of the idealized, effortless intimacy she used to share with Cassie, Julia attempts to re-create it, and tests her powers of identification and empathy in doing so. In effect, Julia responds to each piece of news about Cassie with a flowering of mental activity: “Imagine, imagine for a second what it felt like to Cassie,” she tells her reader breathlessly, “even the possibility–baffling, horrifying, miraculous–that the grinning Captain Clarke might be, could be, maybe, in that awful winter, couldn’t not be the man she told Peter she’d never really, in her deepest heart, believed to be dead: her father.” The vividness of her reconstructions of Cassie’s story is all the more striking since, for the most part, Julia only finds out about her friend’s crisis at second hand. Portentously enough, the person who recounts it to her is Cassie’s ex-boyfriend, and her own soon-to-be boyfriend, Peter.

            Mediated by the two girls’ shared romantic interest, Cassie’s folie rapidly and obviously becomes a folie à deux. The causal explanations Julia spins of her friend’s growing isolation eventually blossom into a full-blown psychological portrait of her supposed descent into a temporary madness. With this blossoming, they also become increasingly wobbly, propped up by hopes of or desires for certainty rather than by such certainties themselves. The suspiciousness–or, to put it more gently, the intense subjective vulnerability–of such speculative monologues increases when we are made to notice how much the feelings and conditions Julia attributes to Cassie echo and amplify Julia’s own loss of childhood security, of which her intimacy with Cassie becomes a towering, radiant symbol.

            Here, in a moment of such increasingly precarious, identificatory generalization, Julia attempts to account for Cassie’s decision to run away from home and show up, unexpected, on her supposed long-lost father’s doorstep:

You have to imagine how absolutely Cassie’s faith was shaken, and this before she went to knock on the front door of the Burnes house. Reality had become slippery. Facts she thought she’d always known disintegrated, or appeared to. She didn’t any longer trust in anything she’d believed to be true; but she was also aware that she might be wrong, that maybe Bev had never lied to her, that her beloved father had in fact died on the highway outside Boston that long-ago night.

Julia’s free indirect discourse is deft and precise–and since she claims to be reporting Peter’s conversation with Cassie, it’s not entirely incredible. But insistent, small phrases like the imperious “you have to imagine” or the unconditional “absolutely” also continue to remind us that Julia has her own stake in believing she’s as deep into Cassie’s story as anybody, including Cassie herself, possibly can be. Hearing Peter’s accounts of Cassie appears to restore Julia’s faith in the possibility of that dreamlike closeness she believed she experienced with Cassie when they played as children. It thereby also seems to allay her gradually awakening fear–that classic bugbear of the Bildungsroman–that other people are not only separable from her but partly inaccessible, and that some of what she might never be able to access in them is their intentionality toward, and perception of, herself.

            As the novel progresses, Julia’s inability to tell the difference between herself and Cassie–and between Cassie’s supposed mental states and her own–deepens. In an uncanny echo of Cassie’s supposed incipient paranoia about connections, plots, and secrets multiplying all around her, Julia begins to tell herself that the entire surrounding community wants her to help Cassie. “Surely,” she tells herself after her father inadvertently supplies her with a clue to Cassie’s behavior,

the reason Mr. Aucoin spoke, lying back in my father’s dentist’s chair, his open mouth vulnerable under a different set of bright lights and my dad’s gloved fingers poking at his gums, the reason he told my father the story was because he knew Cassie and I had been friends forever, and he knew my father would tell me, and he thought that surely then the information would be in the right hands and someone, someone, would do something with it.

Throughout the novel, Julia collects scattered bits of information such as these and tries to piece them together. Behind each such attempt to understand Cassie lurks a belief in Julia’s own uniqueness and chosenness as Cassie’s friend and savior. In effect, the personal crisis with which she diagnoses Cassie and the one she herself seems to be undergoing are eerily alike. Both have to do with mixtures of fear and denial of what reveal themselves as inevitable limits to a person’s capacity to live in a closed intersubjective world to and from which no further important actors can be added and subtracted; a world in which everyone shares, and mutually confirms, the same, unchanging narrative about who the child at its center is and by whom she is loved. Both Julia and Cassie as Julia describes her test the limits of this idealized closed world with trepidation. They can sense something is off about their picture of who they are and how they relate to others, but they cannot quite articulate the mismatch. They brace themselves for a fracture whose nature and origin seem as yet unimaginable to them–for the entrance into their sense of themselves of something radically unknown, uncontrolled, and possibly also uncaring.

            The sense of irresolution that hovers over these passages in which Julia appears to be speaking for herself and Cassie all at once, or talking about herself through Cassie, is further amplified by the novel’s unconventional generic choices, which position it midway between a young adult novel and a Bildungsroman. When Julia narrates this story, the events contained in it are somewhat but not fully behind her: it has only been two years since Cassie’s breakdown, and Julia is still in high school. This timeframe results in an experience of narrative vertigo. Are we listening to a child naively telling us her life in real time, we wonder, or to an adult who retroactively, reliably recounts a lesson learned in youth? It is hard to remember that it’s actually neither, so strong is the generic pull of young adult fiction on the one hand and the Bildungsroman on the other, and so unusual is the in-between position in which Messud plants Julia. This young not-quite-adult’s sense of hurt and urgency is raw, even if her vocabulary sounds mature. She recounts her experience as potential fodder for lessons she has yet to articulate, even though she can already tell that the events she is trying to process might become central to her sense of herself.

            Despite Julia’s vulnerable unreliability–and this is perhaps the greatest strength of Messud’s novel–The Burning Girl does not allow us to hover over this young adult in a position of superiority. As we turn the pages, initially it seems that we already know the lesson Julia is about to learn–but that’s a mistake. As anyone might have predicted, Julia’s bubble of fantasies eventually breaks, causing her pain and embarrassment. Unnervingly, however, the breaking point is not reached by Julia’s confrontation with a fundamentally more objective form of reality. Instead, it is triggered by a suddenly revealed radical indeterminacy about the boundaries between such an “objective” world and her “subjective” one. Even though Messud sets her reader up to believe that Julia is pursuing an unsustainable fantasy, Julia’s intense combination of projection and soul-searching does, against all odds, achieve some measurable success. It helps her find the fugitive Cassie when no one else can and thereby save her friend from certain death by exposure and intoxication. In a way that is just as unexplained and surprising as Julia’s capacity to find Cassie, the latter responds to her rescue by breaking off contact with Julia altogether, with an emotional vehemence that echoes the intensity of their earlier friendship even as it also declares this friendship to be over.

            The unexpected success of her intuition–and the equally unexpected rupture in which it results–throws Julia into a kind of emotional and cognitive purgatory. She experiences what Messud has her vividly describe as a feeling of detachment without reliable objective distance. “This seemed suddenly less surreal,” is how Julia puts it, “and less real too. In what childish fit of insanity had I orchestrated this? As if it were all a game or a story, as if she would do as I imagined her–as I willed her–to have done?” Eventually, she depicts her uncanny knowingness about Cassie as a “curse”: “My curse is to see things, to know stories, how they unfold, and people, what they are like. I don’t seek to know these things, I just do. It tires me, to be honest. Cassie got the prophetic name, but I got the curse–or the gift, depending how you look at it.” In one sense, the statement merely continues the cycle of projections and identifications because of which Julia cannot always tell herself and Cassie apart from each other: she is describing herself through an association raised by Cassie’s full name, Cassandra. But in another sense, Julia is right: in the midst of these emotional projections and identifications, she does occasionally reach deeper truths about another person, even if she cannot reliably tell these truths apart from her own fantasies. The emotional growth she experiences does not consist in abandoning an imagined world for a more “real” one; it lies, instead, in her confronting the much more troubling and confusing interpenetration of the two. The cognitive shock over which Julia obsesses in the course of the novel turns out to be her intimation that this interpenetration might be unresolvable: that the choice to abandon her childhood fantasies, which she was steeling herself to make in her relationship with Cassie, might not have been a real or achievable choice at all.

            Messud’s commitment to such muddled endings and confused characters has not done her many favors. It has contributed to critics’ perception of her novels as lacking real centers of tension and of empathy, points of clear consciousness or of obvious, passionate blindness that we as readers could latch onto and deeply relate to. But the firmness with which Messud refuses to fulfill our desires for nonambivalent attachment–whether within her represented worlds or in the relationships between these worlds and her readers–has a consistency and an honesty that bespeak both the coherence of Messud’s psychological worldview and the skill with which her fiction immerses us in the frustrations and blindnesses this worldview entails. In this regard–though the slimness and relative simplicity of The Burning Girl make it less of a feat than The Emperor’s Children, and though its characters are overall less forcefully provocative than those of either The Emperor’s Children or The Woman Upstairs–on the more limited terms that it sets for itself, Messud’s latest novel is undoubtedly a success.

(Norton, 256 pp., $25.95)