Joni Murphy reading from her debut novel, Double Teenage (Bookthug)
The Magic of Friendship is no cliché in Joni Murphy’s Double Teenage
Cold beet soup, sometimes with a halved hardboiled egg on top, is one of the strongest connections I currently share with my best friend. I come from a culture in which cold food poses the unrealistic risk of giving us bronchitis, so this particular dish is not one of my own.
The preparation of chlodnik is the only Polish tradition that I’ve adopted from my friend’s family. It feels like I’m brewing something foreign every time I stir a cauldron full of bright pink soup, but it’s the preparation of this dish that makes me feel like I’m carrying out a ritual of friendship. On hot days I lap it up gleefully while leaving beet juice stains on clothes and the pages of books. I’ve spent the spring reading up on girlhood friendships, trying to draw connections between Alice Munro, Elena Ferrante, Charlotte Bronte, and my own experiences with cold beet soup.
Joni Murphy’s debut novel, Double Teenage, is part of BookThug Press’s spring 2016 collection. Double Teenage’s pink and purple sunset cover is a promising first impression for the small readership trying to locate themes of girlhood friendship in contemporary coming of age and the bright pink colours of chlodnik soup (i.e., me). Set against the desert of New Mexico and the cultural climate of crime shows and serial killers, Murphy’s book is one about girls learning to tell their own stories by growing up together and navigating adulthood separately.
To come across Double Teenage during the final semester of my academic career felt like a too-perfect coincidence: the novel’s themes of how the feminine coming of age relies on the young woman’s expression of narrative resistance glowed with familiarity. In tender and nostalgic ways, while reading Double Teenage I was constantly aware of my own girlhood friendships, both the ones that grew a rift over the years and the ones that are currently steeped in mutual experience and support.
Double Teenage is the story of Celine and Julie, two girls who bond over a shared admiration of theatre while growing up together in the New Mexico desert during the 1990s. They do a lot of the things teenagers do: go to parties, endure fraught relationships, smoke pot, plan to live on their own. The perpetual presence of violence against women is undeniably present throughout the novel, as is the cultural obsession with worshipping and tearing apart the ideological Young Girl.
The perpetual presence of violence against women is undeniably present throughout the novel, as is the cultural obsession with worshipping and tearing apart the ideological Young Girl.
Murphy’s novel doesn’t seek to romanticize young friendships and lament their expiration; rather it bears witness to the process of growing through similar experiences as friends and similarly progressing through the world as individuals. The unexpected parallel lives that Claire and Julie lead with and without each other, through universities and art communities, strengthen Murphy’s argument about patterns of existence and closed circles of perpetual violence regarding the lives and art of women. As they grow up, the girls accept the cosmic forces of fate: “Celine and Julie agreed events in their lives were intertwined. ‘Karma,’ they whispered. ‘Auspicious trines,’ they nodded. ‘Everything happens for a reason,’ they repeated.” The remainder of the novel deals with the truths of such a sentiment against the physical split of such a friendship.
In an interview with Chris Kraus of Bookforum, Murphy explains her novel’s use of landscape and the ways in which spells have the power to bind and break cycles of ignorance and aggression, “I used New Mexico’s official nickname, Land of Enchantment, to work through the dialectics of girlhood in the Southwest. Enchantment suggests magic, power, but also denial: concealment of what’s going on.”
The figure of the Young Girl represents the concealment of violence and a fascination with women as both objects of desire and victims of aggression. Murphy acknowledges her work as both belonging to and dismantling such ideologies. “This is a mystical circle,” Murphy writes on the employment of young girls as factory workers, “The factories cycle through time in three shifts. The girls come and go on slow buses first thing in the morning, late in the afternoon, and late at night.” Murphy’s protagonists do not endure issues of race and class like many of the subjects in the stories they hear, but Murphy nevertheless includes these realities.
Double Teenage asks its reader to evaluate the sterile ubiquity of sensationalist stories of sex, death, and women.
Double Teenage reminds me of the spell-like rituals of girlhood and relationships and suggests that the magic of performance and speech by young women has the potential to rupture the system of violence against women in art and the real world. In Murphy’s desert, the magic of friendship is no cliché, it’s how Celine and Julie grow into agents of their own. In ways that recall Munro’s Del Jordan, who scoured tabloids for gothic-horror stories of women who became victims to overwhelming masculinity, Double Teenage asks its reader to evaluate the sterile ubiquity of sensationalist stories of sex, death, and women.
During an escape to Mexico in which the girls find themselves scared and in the midst of a police confrontation, Julie offers her friend a “spell,” a phrase that’s both the same backward and forward:
“The real question you need to ask yourself,” said Julie, preparing her expression, “is are we not drawn onward to new era?”
“I don’t get it.”
“Are we no t draw n on ward to ne wera?”
“What are you even saying?”
“For you my bad speller,” Julie laughs, and the ambiguity in the word “spell” draws our attention again to the link between writing and magic for the girls of Murphy’s novel. The sentiment of language pulling in two directions with meaning to be found at both ends carries throughout Double Teenage, manifesting in the novel’s experimentation with form throughout its final pages.
In quoting Tiqqun’s Preliminary Materials for a Theory of a Young Girl in two columns at the beginning of the novel’s final section, Murphy asserts the significance of stanzas in two columns. One such pair reads: (Editor’s Note: The columns are not reproduced here, but in the text the two stanzas appear side by side.)
I tell you
because I care
I didn’t make these stories
but I am bound
In offering the reader poetry in the final pages of her book, Murphy plays with form by offering stanzas in two columns: these columns read equally well together or separate, placing the reader in a position of agency regarding the construction of voice in the Young Girl narrative. These columns can be read as two voices speaking to each other, as voices that do not communicate, or as one message split into two bodies.
Murphy doesn’t give the reader a teary reunion between Celine and Julie in their adult years. What the novel seems to propose, rather, is that more important than the dominating narratives of sensation and cliché is the girls’ ability to grow into artists; witchy writers who can conjure spells to survive girlhood. Double Teenage is ambitious in its consideration of a broad range of real-word events: the Pickton Murders, disappearances of Indigenous women in Canada, Mexican drug and border politics, and self-harm in teens, without entirely addressing how these orbital topics converse with one another. The strength in Murphy’s writing, however, is the distance she evokes between the reader and the subjects. Through a measured refusal to summon the overly sentimental, Double Teenage successfully conjures the overwhelming feelings of friendship in youth.