Celine and Julie are negotating the borders of girlhood, wandering back and forth across dotted lines and territories both more and less available to them as the years pass.
They trade L.M. Montgomery’s girlhood classics for “Law and Order” and Our Bodies, Ourselves, while readers follow in their footsteps in narratives which alternately focus on one girl, then the other.
Double Teenage is divided into four parts (delightful wordplay in their naming, alluding to some of the novel’s themes and motifs), the first three presented chronologically and the last restarting the numbering and taking a more objective view.
It’s as though the final section of the work is taking measurements and performing calculations based on some of the sensory and cultural details shared in the narratives of the girls’ growing years, studies and analyses taking over where the imagery and emotions left off. (There are some lovely bits early on, like, “I carry you around in my mind like it’s a pocket.”)
In the novel’s early pages, readers have an eye on the girls’ experiences, which Joni Murphy presents in such a way that, even if readers have not grown up in a small town, near the U.S./Mexico border, some aspects are familiar (for instance, classic novels, and TV shows with hundreds of episodes).
“The books were classic girl fiction: Alice in Wonderland and Anne of Green Gables and Emily of New Moon and all the Little House books and Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. As if she had been there, Celine’s mother spoke about prairie fires and scarlet fevers, initiation rituals and torrential downpours, family betrayals and corset-induced fainting spells. Her voice moved like a wagon. It moved like feet in leather moccasins padding through dust and starvation. Her voice lost children to fever.”
Celine’s mother reads aloud, often stories that she thinks might ease her daughter’s passage through girlhood. But other than the Little House books, which are clearly tales of survival against the elements (filled with natural disasters and the trials of pioneer life), these stories feature girls who learn that care-giving is the ultimate achievement.
The men and boys they meet? On the page and in the world? Their stories are epic, only pretending to hold little substance; they are inherently worthwhile. “He told the myth of his family like a flat but colorful film.”
Not until they are older, starring in their own features, do Celine and Julie begin to tell stories in their own voices. “At eighteen they finally felt like performers rather than audience.”
Not until they are older, do they recognize that the risks they face are an integral part of the narratives they inhabit, the stories told about their kind.
“They modeled new lives. Both Celine and Julie put deserts behind them, convincing themselves it was just a corrupted cowboy land – a myth world cast in violet light – which they were now safely out of. The real world felt brutal, yes, but also so beautifully visible, and they were finally in it.”
Double Teenage considers the desire to consume stories, to transform experiences into types, dreams into expectations. “The people in the auditorium, classmates and teachers, trafficked in this material. They refined, packaged, traded, cut, and consumed these kind of ideas.”
It’s not only material which is treated in this matter-of-fact manner. What else is refined, packaged, traded, cut, and consumed?
Celine and Julie have so many questions, seemingly endless questions when they are girls, when they expect to feel aswim, and later even more questions, but the potential to give voice to them is diminished. It’s as though these questions should not be asked, as though the asking of them violates a code.
“Who do dead bodies belong to? Who do women’s bodies belong to? Are women beings or objects? Is there something between?”
Joni Murphy’s narrative straddles the line between a character-driven story and a treatise to be discussed, something living and breathing and something only understood from afar. There is more than one way to look at it, more than one valid formula.
“What grips their insides is knowledge of their value, their worthlessness. They flee because, in their world, existence hinges on a litany of imperatives. Be pretty, charm, adapt to threat. The lessons might be summarizde as Be good or else.”
What happens when “or else” is the only answer?