I am sitting in a café in Vancouver trying to write a review of Joni Murphy’s Double Teenage. Kayla and I are procrastinating by dreaming up a literary reading series and courting the affection of the establishment’s resident cat. Other writers keep coming by the communal wood table we’re seated at and adding to our discussion. I can’t help but feel like everything I’ve read or experienced up until this point is potent and enmeshed. And today it makes a good web, and I can see a way forward, but I know there are days when this intertwining of experience, history, and theory conspires darkly, when I feel conscripted to perpetuate and witness oppressions, and when I am confused about how to survive it. I am concerned about how art raises questions I cannot answer. These are the issues Murphy addresses in her novel about two curious women whose trajectories remind me of our own.
I keep meeting folks who know you, who speak highly of your dedicated friendship and activism, who tell me how you are this beacon of queer, radical light in your community. I’m not surprised that they adore you like I do. I only wish that our lives overlapped in real time rather than twinning obscurely through graduate school and the queerness we’ve pursued from different sides of the country. I’m proud of how we survived growing up in the same, awful small town, how we endured its material and psychic violences. And, while we share this history, what is more amazing is how what we’ve built for ourselves as adults yokes us together even now.
How art, survival, and violence interact on local and global stages is the tension that underpins Murphy’s novel. Allegorical yet timely, Double Teenage tells a dark and beautiful tale of two childhood best friends, Julie and Celine, who grow up together in the Southwest in the 1990s. They drift apart while studying art and theory as adults in their adopted homes of Vancouver and Chicago. But their lives remain intertwined because of their shared desert incubation and the struggles they face when they enter the academy and the art world.
Murphy captures how women navigate both subject and object positions—how they flicker between experiencing the world and observing themselves in it. And this is what brings Celine and Julie together in addition to their childhood friendship and philosophical pursuits. Murphy writes: “They learned so much; they learned to think about themselves as if from the outside.” Murphy tracks how this subject-object position plays out broadly in the culture, and in the minutiae of the everyday and the interpersonal, demonstrating how Julie and Celine subsume and attempt to resist the limitations imposed on them through their art, writing and relationships.
The novel charts the intricacies of a formative friendship as it converges and diverges over time. Julie and Celine first bond over their mutual love of local theatre where they learn about performance on stage and in real life. As teenagers, they witness the intimate links that bind people together, in productive and violent ways, in the microcosm of a desert college town. As adults, they follow different but similar paths into the broader world where they grapple with the saturation of routine and systemic gender-based violence. From their privileged positions within grad school, Murphy shows the progressive philosophical bubble to be fraught with contradiction and its own patterns of oppression. In response to this challenge, the women arm themselves with language—Julie writes critical essays about the portrayal of dead girls’ bodies; Celine creates performance art that processes a hometown tragedy; and they both write tender, complex love letters to partners and sometimes to each other. Murphy suggests that art can magically rally and heal and just as easily obscure and harm. Julie’s experience in graduate school gets at this complex relationship between language and experience:
Julie kept encountering the figure of the cutter; philosophers seemed to love these crazy girls. Though she read about it and recalled vividly Celine with blood running down her arms and Band-Aids under her dresses she would not speak up in class. Julie hated the women in the women’s studies classes who described their own experiences in relation to the text but she remained silent about that as well. She hated the girl in her program writing a thesis on sex positivity. She made her face a mask. Julie actually preferred reading European men who clearly had female troubles.
Murphy chooses a difficult, conflicted stance for the novel as it thinks through the North American obsession with violated and dead feminine bodies. There is no clear way forward because critical thought can connect people, but also alienate them from each other.
The text integrates the Ciudad Juarez femicides and Robert Pickton’s murders of women from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside into its plot, mirroring white middle-class engagement with gendered, racialized, class-based violence. Murphy shows how we learn about these kinds of atrocities from the media often in a shabby but safe kitchen and then mull them over in unresolved discussions at parties.
Importantly, Murphy chooses to not deploy the murders as ominous, distant hauntings: they are integrated with urgency into both the plot and form of the novel. For example, while in the Pacific Northwest, Julie writes about Laura Palmer’s specter in Twin Peaks and notices “philosophers [who] seemed to love these crazy girls.” In the middle of this academic task, she reflects on an example of gender-based violence from her hometown. Murphy then juxtaposes Julie’s academic life in Vancouver with the emerging details of the Pickton murders—his family’s social and economic rise and his targeting of vulnerable women on the margins of society. Later, in a more formally innovative section of the novel, the author reprimands Canadian indifference by quoting former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s comments that the rampant murder of First Nations women is not a sociological phenomenon. The overlapping layers are dizzying, but necessary. The text bears witness and refuses to forget.
In the final portion of the novel, Murphy experiments with form, weaving Celine and Julie’s narratives together with media and theory. In the concluding numbered sections of the novel, the text relinquish its adherence to verisimilitude and becomes pithier as well as more poetic, incantatory, associative, and combative:
The girls were getting to that point where they felt almost able to grasp what was happening but it made no difference. They still felt crazy. Knowing would not be enough and pinning something down was impossible. The violence they first thought of as geographically specific was actually miasmic. Its specific hue was bound up with their place and time. But even still, the hues of these violences were in the same family, red fading to black, black fading to brown.
No one is to blame Or blame goes round and round
This is a play about the bloody spotting of system, the ruined panties of the state.
The progression from realistic, beautiful narration to a looser collection of sprawling meditations is effective—Murphy commits to telling the story in plain terms and then scrambles the narrative to ask larger questions. She earns our trust before opening the novel up to its glorious and challenging irresolution, inviting readers to investigate their own relationships to the representation and processing of oppression through art.
Murphy’s novel is a fairytale set in real places that have their own mythologies and histories—the surreal desert, the rainy Pacific Northwest, the chilly and gritty Northeast. In her depictions of these settings, Murphy demonstrates how reality and metaphor superimpose to form a place:
Celine felt the desert was a science fiction. This kind of landscape doesn’t appear in the real world or TV except as the setting for alien planets and westerns.
The novel takes the lives of young women seriously. Murphy shows how danger is often nearby, known, mundane. Double Teenage doesn’t quite feel like a coming-of-age novel, although that is a fine genre. It’s more properly in line with Chris Kraus’s theory-as-novel genre. In its exigent dialogue with popular culture, high art, and theory that connects to women’s experiences and desires, Double Teenage is reminiscent of I Love Dick. However, in Murphy’s novel, the distant love between two women proffers the site of projection onto which the two characters hurl their thoughts and feelings. And Murphy seems to suggest this interpersonal connection that endures despite external and internalized misogyny is magic and is its own dizzying and overlapping network of survival and creation. In a culture mostly interested in the spectacle of dead girls, Double Teenage is a formally provocative counter spell to the facts of violence.
Anyway, Sarah, I couldn’t help but knit you into this narrative. I know you’d have your own interpretation of the novel, nuanced and different from mine. I think we could have a discussion about race that makes explicit some things Murphy touches on implicitly. I don’t think the novel is direct and urgent because I relate to Julie and Celine. While the trajectory of my life resonates with theirs, I still felt a cool distance from the characters—maybe that’s the queerness or my age. But there are channels of ferocity and tenderness in the novel that I laud. You know about the ongoing labour of fierceness and empathy.
When I hit the final lines of Murphy’s novel, in which Julie lovingly addresses her estranged friend Celine, I immediately thought of you:
I miss you with my whole heart.
And so Murphy’s novel is compelling me to write to you in the hopes that my message will create a wormhole, that it will fold the continent so that I can reach out to you in Montreal and share this affirmative spell.
ADÈLE BARCLAY'S writing has appeared in The Literary Review of Canada, The Pinch, PRISM, The Fiddlehead, and elsewhere. Her debut collection of poetry, If I Were In A Cage I'd Reach Out For You, was shortlisted for the 2015 Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Poetry and is forthcoming from Nightwood Editions in fall 2016. She is the Interviews Editor for The Rusty Toque.
Monthly reviews of poetry and fiction.