A minor tragedy among the 1% – in The Guest, Emma Cline gives an outsider's view of a culture of extreme wealth


Early in Emma Cline’s new novel The Guest, her protagonist Alex is introduced to the unspoken assumptions that govern the wealthy enclave on Long Island where she is spending the summer. Her significantly older boyfriend Simon has taken her to a beach and thoughtlessly kicks off his shoes near the entrance:

Everyone did, apparently: there were shoes and sandals piled up by the low wood railing. No one takes them? Alex asked. Simon raised his eyebrows. Who would take someone else’s shoes?

The strangeness of this new world is immediately apparent. Its inhabitants live without fear. They leave their cars unlocked, their bicycles unsecured, their bags unattended, confident in a “system that existed only because everyone believed they were among people like themselves”.

Review: The Guest – Emma Cline (Chatto & Windus)

Alex resolves to blend in and “disappear herself”, enjoying the comfort and security by remaining pleasantly unobtrusive. For a while this works. As a guest in Simon’s holiday home, she swims and watches television during the day, trails him to dinners and parties at night. She wears the clothes that he chooses for her. She comes and goes at his pleasure. “That was the point of Alex, to offer up no friction whatsoever.”

Alex is deeply invested in maintaining Simon’s favour because she has nowhere else to go. Prior to meeting Simon, she had been an escort in Manhattan, though her business had started to decline perilously just after her 22nd birthday:

Too many of her usuals stopped reaching out, for whatever reason […] She rewrote her ad copy, paid an exorbitant fee to be featured on the first page of results. Dropped her rates, then dropped them again.

Alex is almost destitute and dangerously indebted when she has a chance encounter with Simon in a bar. Simon is a “civilian”: someone whose “self-conception wouldn’t include participation in certain arrangements”. Nonetheless, Alex reels him in, presenting herself as just “a normal young girl, enjoying her life in the city”. This quickly leads to series of dates and the invitation to spend the summer with him.

Their arrangement seems poised to become something more permanent, offering Alex the stability she craves:

There was talk of Alex possibly moving in. Whenever Simon alluded to any possible future, Alex dropped her eyes; otherwise, her desperation would be too obvious […] Keep up the appearance of self-sufficiency, let him feel he was navigating all of this. At this point, restraint was best.

Unfortunately, Alex is unable to maintain the careful concentration required for her gambit to succeed. A couple of minor lapses – a traffic accident, a slightly flirtatious conversation with a young man at a party – are enough to exhaust Simon’s patience. His general lack of care and curiosity, which she had successfully leveraged to secure the invitation into his home, now work against her. She is quickly deposited by his assistant at the train station with a one-way ticket back to the city.

Alex, however, is unwilling to accept her fate. She convinces herself that she can regain Simon’s favour at his annual Labour Day party. With no money, a broken phone, and a suitcase full of expensive, impractical clothes, she sets out on a journey across the exclusive postcode, hoping to grift enough food and shelter to survive the next six days.

Alex’s adventures quickly fall into a familiar pattern. She bluffs her way into some context (a party, the vacant home of one of Simon’s friends, a beach club), trading on the blithe assumption that as a young, attractive, well dressed white woman she naturally belongs there. She extracts some small benefit (a meal, a bed for the night, some pilfered cash or jewellery) before a slip or mishap forces her to move on.

These episodes are well realised, but they do not amount to much. Only a little chaos follows in Alex’s wake. The residents of the elite suburb are barely inconvenienced by the occasional losses or damages that she causes, if they even notice at all.

And Alex remains determined to have as little impact as possible. She carefully decides how far she can push any given situation, what she can safely steal, and what must be left behind. She escapes scrutiny by retreating into silence whenever a conflict threatens to emerge, blending into the background, but her growing exhaustion and desperation inevitably work to expose her. It is easy for her to pass – for a time – among the excessively wealthy, but it is impossible to truly belong.

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Amenable blankness

It is tempting to compare Alex’s trajectory in The Guest with that of Evie, the narrator of Cline’s striking first novel The Girls. Like Alex, Evie is positioned as a needy outsider. A 14-year-old in 1969 California, she hovers on the periphery of several ambiguous relationships: with her divorced parents, with her childhood best friend and, most alluringly, with her new acquaintance Suzanne – a member of an eventually murderous cult.

Evie and Alex are both defined, in certain respects, through their submission to male authority figures. Simon and Russell – the Charles Manson-like leader of Suzanne’s cult – are shadowy presences in their respective novels. They only appear in a handful of scenes and receive little in the way of concrete description or characterisation. Evie and Alex nonetheless fall under their exploitative control.

The difference between Evie and Alex is that Evie is fuelled by an adolescent desire to be seen, whereas Alex, more than anything else, wants to be invisible.

Russell appeals to Evie because he offers her the prospect of a distinct identity at a time when she is struggling with her perceived ordinariness. “You’re here,” he says when meeting her, which she interprets as an acknowledgement that she is someone special.

By contrast, Alex is drawn to Simon because he provides a means of escaping or overwriting her own identity:

Alex had imagined what kind of person Simon would like, and that was the person Alex told him she was. All Alex’s unsavoury history excised until it started to seem, even to her, like none of it had ever happened.

Both novels explore the experiences of a protagonist on the fringe of a particular community – the cult in The Girls, the wealthy suburb in The Guest – but they offer contrasting commentaries and outcomes. Evie is drawn to the cult because she is captivated by Suzanne and intrigued by the prospect of freedom and transformation it seems to offer. Alex, on the other hand, keeps the residents of Long Island at a judicious distance. She deflects questions, or invents stories about herself when challenged.

Tellingly, the encounters that present Alex with the greatest difficulty are with lonely adolescent characters who, like Evie, are desperate for connection. She briefly befriends a teenager named Margaret, who latches onto her in a way that recalls Evie’s fervour for Suzanne.

Jack, a dissatisfied drop-out with whom Alex spends the last third of the novel, genuinely wants to know who she is. “How come you don’t tell me anything?” he asks at one point, frustrated by her amenable blankness.

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Absolute precarity

Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha (1922) is repeatedly referenced throughout The Guest. Jack has apparently been immersed in the novel all summer; it is almost comforting to see that it remains a perennial favourite among privileged-yet-troubled young men.

A parallel with Hesse’s novel might be found in Alex’s avoidance of attachment and the cyclic nature of her journey. Her precarity is so absolute that she has no choice but to adapt to it with a kind of Zen-like enlightenment. She does not spend much time reflecting on the past or trying to anticipate what is coming next; she is generally focused on living – or surviving – from moment to moment. All of her moments of respite are temporary; every satisfaction eventually gives way to loss.

The Guest is consistent and clever in its language, structure and characterisation. It delivers some piercing observations about the insular, oblivious lives of the rich, and the harried staff who support them. Assistants, bartenders, maids and caretakers are more alert than their employers to Alex’s hustle.

But I found the novel most interesting in its early sections, which detail Alex’s carefully poised, calculating attempts to maintain an air of ease and effortlessness in her relationship with Simon. Once she is expelled from his home, her experiences quickly become repetitive. The extended entanglement with Jack towards the end of the novel drags on for far too long, when it is clear that it will not result in any real development.

Emma Cline. Neil Krug/Penguin Books
Emma Cline. Neil Krug/Penguin Books

As a character, Alex offers an interesting lens through which to view a culture of extreme wealth, but her resolute avoidance of genuine connection or investment in any given situation renders her somewhat static. No matter the scenario, she is always stalling, just trying to pass the time until Simon’s party in the dubious hope of reuniting with him.

As a result, while The Guest is acutely observed and captures the low-key anxiety of Alex’s situation, it is not a particularly gripping novel. It becomes apparent a little too early on that nothing significant is going to change, that all of its plot threads will end in predictable ambiguity.

Cline’s debut was far more successful in building an engaging narrative around a passive and reactive protagonist. The suspense in The Girls was not only generated from the anticipation of its heavily foreshadowed murders, but from Evie’s attempts to define herself at a tumultuous point in life.

Evie is not a participant in the novel’s horrific central event, but it causes her to question her own identity. She cannot be sure if Suzanne’s decision to expel her from the cult shortly before its murderous rampage was an act of love or contempt. She will never know how she would have acted if she had been present during the cult’s attack. In her adult life, she is almost jealous of Suzanne’s concrete trajectory as a convicted, then repentant, murderer. Her own culpability is murkier; her guilt, though present, is harder to understand.

In The Guest, Alex lacks this self-reflective complexity. Evie struggles with her role as a bystander, but a bystander is all Alex aspires to be. The minor tragedy that The Guest explores – perhaps at a greater length than it can really sustain – is that Alex’s struggle to be a bystander in the world of the 1% is exhausting and self-erasing, and always just beyond her grasp.

This article is republished from The Conversation is the world's leading publisher of research-based news and analysis. A unique collaboration between academics and journalists. It was written by: Julian Novitz, Swinburne University of Technology.

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Julian Novitz does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.