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May 15, 2018 BOOKLIST
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Well beneath the clamor of giant series celebrating anniversaries this year (Harry Potter turns 20; The Hunger Games turns 10) rumbles another book turning 10, one far less well known but, to all who have read it, one that no number of elapsed years will allow them to forget.
Sitting uneasily at the junction of thriller, mystery, horror, and literary fiction, Elizabeth Scott’s Living Dead Girl presents a world so closed off and self-contained it leaves no room for slow reveals or plot twists. The book begins, startlingly but critically, with 15-year-old Alice getting her pubic hair waxed at a salon. For five years she has taken this and other measures (staying below 100 pounds, suppressing her period) to remain young-seeming enough for her pedophile captor, Ray.
Why doesn’t she run? Because Ray has promised the retaliation of going to her former home and murdering her family. So Alice endures an unending cycle of rape, starvation, and beatings, interspersed with protestations of love from Ray. As a result, she’s a girl who’s barely there—numb, emotionless, and distantly aware of her own approaching death. Her real name is not even “Alice”; there was another “Alice” before her, whom Ray killed when her body outgrew his preferences.
She knows that the only way to stop getting older is to die.
Scott designs the book as a series of short, blunt vignettes that tumble to the page in a nonchronological order mirroring Alice’s displaced memories. Her utter paralysis leads her to assist with Ray’s plan to kidnap a 6-year-old girl who frequents a playground, even though this new girl will, in all likelihood, replace Alice. When Alice imagines the replacement, she doesn’t recoil. In fact, she says, “It makes me smile.”
Many authors would have planted a gutsy spark of resistance in Alice from the start; it’s standard procedure for getting readers on the side of the protagonist. Scott doesn’t. Alice is maddeningly unequipped to resist, and Ray’s plot creeps ever closer to actualization. Instead of hinging on ticking-clock theatrics, the tension is derived from the agonizing wait for Alice to feel enough to have the courage—even the energy—to conduct an act of defiance.
It is a hellish book whittled down to the bone: 176 pages, every one of them like a dying gasp. One of Scott’s most savage critiques is of a blinkered society. Ray allows Alice to roam free, yet no one ever asks after her well-being. Chapter 27 boils it down: “Three life lessons: 1. No one will see you. 2. No one will say anything. 3. No one will save you.” Clients at the waxing salon, for example, are much happier once Alice exits: “The women I’m sitting with, all older, all reading magazines that promise quick dinners and happier children, look relieved.”
Scott rages at the pressure to look young. “Be my little girl forever,” Ray says. While at the salon, Alice thinks, “Everyone wants the young.” Clearly, she’s referring to Ray. But she’s also referring to America and the grinding pressure for women to sweat, starve, pluck, wax, inject, and go under the knife to fight an unwinnable battle against time. There is a machine, Scott seems to suggest, that helps create people like Ray (she once refers to all abusers as “Rays”), and we all are cogs inside it.
The one time Alice gets her period, Ray vomits. What a swift way to depict a man, swollen with power, incapable of even the barest understanding of half the human race. Repeatedly, Alice refers to her body as a foreign shell, and tellingly, Ray’s first words to her after her capture are, “Who are you?” Right away, he questions her identity before radically recasting it. Chapter 24 ends with Alice’s utmost fantasy, heartbreaking and infuriating in its modesty. In this fantasy, “I would always be listened to.”
Living Dead Girl is a bomb planted in Scott’s bibliography, tucked between the YA romances Stealing Heaven (2008) and Something, Maybe (2009). Perhaps the novel, upon detonating, was meant as a wake-up call to YA lit. Publishers content to only publish books adhering to quotidian notions of “relatable” or “likable” protagonists condescend to teen readers, only quickening the cogs of the aforementioned machine. Teens are quite capable of handling the occasional Living Dead Girl. Indeed, they need access to such books more than ever.
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