Inspired by this tweet (“This book is viscerally upsetting, lol. What the fuck”), I read The Guest by Emma Cline.
The inside flap offers an accurate description of the story: Alex makes a “misstep at a dinner party” and ends up wandering around Long Island. She has “few resources and a waterlogged phone, but [is] gifted with an ability to navigate the desires of others.” She is indeed “propelled by desperation and a mutable sense of morality” and “a cipher leaving destruction in her wake.”
And, yes, the book is viscerally upsetting.
Is the story about status and hierarchies? Yes. Is it about appearances and identity? Yes. Is it about the transactional roles young women play in American society? Yes.
Is it about a young woman who has nowhere to live? Yes: Alex is homeless.
This is not the reason why I chose to read this book. (Honestly, the only thing I knew about the book was from that tweet. We can wonder together why I wanted to read something “viscerally upsetting”).
It’s not Alex’s status as a homeless person that turns the stomach. (I don’t even know how many readers use the frame of homelessness while reading this story.) It’s the odious nature of her choices, how unsettling her behavior is. She is not endearing. (Kudos to Cline for creating a character who is unlikeable yet compelling.) We readers get caught up in the appearances of luxury and decadence that we forget that Alex is trying to find a stable place to live.
We never learn Alex’s backstory; we don’t know where she is from, what happened to her in the more distant past, or how she came to behave this way. Part of the point of the novel, I think, is that we can never know: Appearances are what matter. You can tell any story you want to get your needs met.
For readers who want to make their lives more difficult (…), this book introduces uncomfortable questions related to homelessness:
- If a young woman is despicable, does she deserve to be homeless?
- What do we want to happen to young women we don’t like? Do we want them to suffer? Is homelessness a sufficient punishment?
- Do we therefore assume that all people who are homeless must have done terrible things?
Then there’s the question of redemption. The events of The Guest unfold over the course of one week. Do we think Alex could ever redeem herself? What if it takes a year? or five?
Should people who are unlikeable be homeless until they redeem themselves?
Maybe Alex is a cipher, but, more importantly, she has no place to live. That’s why she’s “propelled by desperation and a mutable sense of morality”. Perhaps we take comfort in the idea that Alex is a character, that this is a novel.
- Would we make similar choices if we were in Alex’s situation?
- Could we also do such unlikeable things if we were homeless?
What if the homeless young women we encounter aren’t anything like Alex? Might we want to make different choices ourselves?
(And, yes, to be clear, I do recommend The Guest.)