This week’s weird fiction.
Review: “The Intoxicated Years”, Mariana Enríquez, trans. Megan McDowell, 2015.
Enríquez gives us a familiar plot setup: the ups and downs, the conflicts and friendship among three teenaged girls.
Except these teenagers are thoroughly unlikeable, and they take teenage callousness and self-centeredness to unusual levels.
The story starts in Argentina in 1989, and I would suspect Enríquez, who was a 16 year old Argentinian that year, is more reporting than inventing with her characters.
It’s a time of electrical blackouts and runaway inflation:
Our mothers cried in the kitchen because they didn’t have enough money or there was no electricity or they couldn’t pay the rent or inflation had eaten away at their salaries until they didn’t cover anything beyond bread and cheap meat, but we girls – their daughters – didn’t feel sorry for them. Our mothers seemed just as stupid and ridiculous as the power outages.
This is not going to be a story of family reconciliation and daughters learning new respect for their mothers. It’s not even, really, about friendship – just a collapse of attachments and social relationships down to the singular trio, the coven, of the three main characters.
The girls are Andrea, fashionable, beautiful, and tall; Paula, blonde and often sunburned; and our narrator.
It’s fitting that our first encounter with the girls is emblematic of their isolation from the world, their withdrawal from everything but each other, their self-destructive streaks.
They are riding in the back of a van belonging to an unnamed (we are told his name doesn’t matter) boyfriend of Andrea. High on Paraguayan pot, they love it when the van goes fast or turns sharply or brakes. They love that it feels like a roller coaster and the blows to their heads.
The girls share everything: clothes, a hair dryer, and bikini wax. They are enough of a type that people say they look alike. They even mimic each other’s movements and speech.
The days are long and the nights hot in the blackouts.
In 1990, the three all manage to have phones. They sneak away to spend Saturday nights in Buenos Aires.
The narrator tells us of her love for a waiter in a bar. He rejects her. She sleeps with someone else after downing a half a liter of gin. The next morning, covered in vomit, she goes to Andrea’s house. Andrea’s father is a drunk. Perhaps the lock on the door to Andrea’s bedroom is to prevent incestuous molestation, perhaps to prevent a beating, or maybe just to keep him out.
The girls promise never to have boyfriends though the narrator doubts Andrea, “always weak with men”, will keep this promise. Paula is never going to let a man touch her.
The weirdness shows up on a bus trip back from Buenos Aires. A girl asks the driver to drop her off in the middle of nowhere, far from any stops, in the Parque Pereyra. The driver initially refuses. But the girl, about the age of our three girls, is insistent. She looks at the driver with “intense hatred”, “like a witch, like an assassin, like she had evil powers”. But she gets dropped off.
She lingers in the memory of the girls. She has no “bag or backpack”, dressed in clothes too flimsy for the cool night, and they are sure “no one could ever hurt her”.
They even go looking for her one night, driven by Paula’s brother in the family car. They don’t find her, but Paula’s brother jokes that maybe the girl was the park ranger’s daughter.
“But I know that girl wasn’t anyone’s daughter,” says the narrator.
That theme of isolation from family continues in 1991. In high school, the girls pound back whiskey and Emotival stolen from the narrator’s depressed, often bedridden mother.
Typically, the girls don’t care at all for adult concerns or that life is a bit better now with inflation lessening.
All the girls are from poor backgrounds but, with the naivete of even normal youth, they believe they can get rich.
But meeting another classmate, new from Patagonia, cures that. Ximena parents “had something to do with oil”. But, going over to Ximena’s house, the three hate Ximena immediately. It’s not that the house isn’t nice but that Ximena is ugly, scarred, and an easy mark when they convince her to steal money from her mother. It goes to various psychiatric medications (evidently easily available in Argentina then).
Among them are the “blue pills that we avoided forever after”. Ximena goes berserk and sets a floor on fire and sees eyes floating around her. As far as “bad trips” goes, this doesn’t impress the three girls. A would-be boyfriend of Paula’s went permanently psychotic on mushrooms. It’s the first case of those associated with the girls coming to bed ends.
Ximena doesn’t go psychotic, but she gets hospitalized and doesn’t want to be the girls’ friend.
In 1992, Roxana comes into the girls’ life. She’s skinny, lives alone, and doesn’t have any food in the house except some Coke and eggs. No food, though, sounds splendid to the girls. They make a mutual promise to eat as little as possible to be “light and pale like dead girls”.
One night, Roxana brings out some cocaine. Andrea forgoes it for pot, but the narrator and Paula snort up. So does Roxana, and she tells a lot of lies. We hear about her cousin disappearing in the Nazca Lines in Mexico (even the narrator knows they’re in Peru). We hear a story about an amusement park of magical doors which sounds like “a book for boys called The Museum of Dreams“.
She also talks about witches gathering in Parque Pereyra. But she expands the story with unbelievable detail which reminds the narrator of
a really great horror movie about killing little girls to bring fertility back to a British island.
(A reference to The Wicker Man?)
But perhaps something has been brought into the world through all that talk and coke. While listening to Pink Floyd’s Ummagumma, the girls feel like something is chasing them through the house.
In 1993, Andrea, who can’t leave the boys alone, has a punk rocker boyfriend, and she’s ditched the other two girls on Friday nights. Chafing at this betrayal, the narrator reminds Andrea of a girl they knew who died after her fourth abortion. Andrea replies she doesn’t care if she dies.
Sans Andrea, Paula and the narrator head out for Parque Pereyra. Maybe the witch girl can be the friend Andrea isn’t anymore.
They don’t find much. Spending the night, the narrator thinks, hopefully, a scorpion will sting her, and she’ll die. Paula sees a white shadow. The two are tired since they’re still eating as little as possible.
They do, however, find a white ribbon. Maybe, it’s a message from their friend.
And things reach a conclusion of sort in 1991 at Roxana’s birthday party. Led Zeppelin III is playing on vinyl. Some acid is dropped.
The years haven’t made the narrator any kinder or sympathetic towards the worlds of adults:
Electronics were cheap, TVs and stereos, photo and video cameras. It couldn’t last long, said my parents, it couldn’t be true that an Argentine peso had the same worth as a dollar. But we were so sick of everything they said, my parents and the other parents, doomsayers, catastrophists announcing the imminent return to blackouts and all the pathetic hardships. Now they didn’t cry over inflation: they cried because they didn’t have jobs. They cried as if they weren’t to blame for any of it. We hated innocent people.
Andrea and her punk rocker boyfriend show up. Paula’s brother is there too.
The punk rocker is cringing in a corner, afraid of something, saying who knows what under the loud music. His pupils are black.
Disgusted, the narrator walks over to him and gives him a look, that look of hatred she saw on that girl’s face all those nights ago. She feels full of power, an electrical surge.
She hates the punk. Andrea left the other girls for him. He’s cute, and he’s innocent.
She hits him. Paula, now wearing that ribbon in her hair (no “flowers in her hair” unlike that “hippie” music they’ve been listening to), throws scissors at him, cutting his face.
He got scared then, the punk, he got really scared with the blood dripping down over his white shirt, and he must have seen the same thing we did, or something similar distorted by the acid: his hands covered in blood, the stained walls, the three of us surrounding him and holding knives.
He runs out of the house, trips, and lies twitching on the ground. Someone mentions scorpions inside. Are they tripping or are there really scorpions?
As the punk rocker lays in blood, the three decide no more violence is necessary. The question Andrea asks, “Is he dead?” isn’t literally answered.
Metaphorically it is. Andrea returns to the house with the other three. There they dance before a mirror that reflects no one but them.
And there the story ends, the trio’s reintegrated, maybe by a blood sacrifice, maybe by the witch’s power.
My first reaction to this end was an annoyed “And?”. However, in thinking about it, I realized the ending completes the shrinking of the selfish girls’ world to just themselves. It doesn’t matter that the punk rocker is dead or not. They’ve injured him and don’t care about his fate or anyone else’s.
Do the girls ever change? Presumably, at least the narrator survives to write the tale. But she shows no sign of repentance about her sneering attitude toward innocent adults. On the other hand, the title implies the narrator realizes she wasn’t right in the head during this time.
If I’m going to have a weird story with teenagers, I prefer Enríquez’s deplorable versions than plucky ones. She’s captured an extreme version of teenage group solipsism, callousness, and cruelty against a backdrop of adults confronting the world and trying to survive. For these girls, though, that adulthood seems as far away spiritually as it did at the beginning of the story. The years may have brought them closer together, but they are bound up with the spirit of the girl with angry eyes.