The Girl Before, The Girl After
By Miriam Kramer
In The Girl Before, two troubled women speak of looking for London lodging after personal trauma. Emma, the one before, has been robbed in the flat she shares with her boyfriend Simon. Years later, Jane is recovering from bearing a stillborn baby. Both are looking for a fresh start somewhere else to lick their wounds. Edward Monkford, a prize-winning architect, is offering his minimalist London masterpiece for the price of a moderate apartment to a handpicked tenant. Applicants for One Folgate Street must pass a test and an interview to live in an exquisitely calibrated home with pale stone walls, a Buddhist-inspired garden, high ceilings, and iconic modern furnishings. In this house technology works with physical design to create atmosphere and mood with temperature, light, and even water temperature tuned to a tenant’s rhythms.
When chosen, both Emma and her boyfriend in the past and Jane in the present must decide whether to pay a personal price on top of the low rent. In taking the architect’s psychometric test, they must address statements such as “Please make a list of every possession you consider essential to your life” or “When I’m working on something, I can’t relax until it’s perfect: Agree or Disagree.” Monkford’s lengthy contract also contains a stringent set of requirements allowing the architect complete control of this experiment in living: no clutter, very few personal objects allowed, an ability to examine monitored and aggregated data collected from occupants, and the time to show the house to budding architects once a month. In return, first Emma and then Jane have the chance to dump their emotional baggage in a cool, womb-like dwelling free of attachments, a detached domain where they can rebuild their lives.
Under Monkford’s control, “domain” does seem the correct way to describe his mental place in physical and cyber space. At different times, both women choose to live within this computer-controlled design of his choosing, where they are carefully, scientifically monitored in a refuge or a cage, depending on the character’s developing point of view.
From this point on The Girl Before unfortunately disintegrates into a mishmash of narrative and genre clichés, starring underdeveloped characters that undermine this intriguing premise. I wish I could have read a similar novel by cyberpunk author William Gibson, who masterfully writes enigmatic characters enmeshed with accelerating technology and design.
While still possessing scope for thought, this book ends up trying too hard to achieve commercial success and go in too many directions. After Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl or Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train, publishers seem to want to replicate that success by slapping similar names on bestsellers-to-be. Ron Howard will direct a film based on this novel. I hope that with careful editing and good actors he will find a way to take the idea and make it a much better movie.
With approaches that range between mordantly funny, vulnerable, angry, and sad, Koul examines racism and sexism in both Canada and India. As a child born to two first-generation immigrants from the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, she quips that her parents moved to “a land of ice and casual racism.” Young, liberal, and motivated to create progress, Koul writes about a Canada she finds less multicultural than it seems to the world. She also speaks of feeling torn between the restrictive values of her loving parents, in particular her hilarious, existentially depressed dad, and her life as a native English-speaking Canadian born in the suburbs of Calgary, Alberta.
Her quirky, neurotic parents wrap their lives tightly around family, having uprooted themselves from India in the late 1970s. The past recedes from them in romantic memories as relatives pass away so very far away. Koul herself depicts a few highly colored memories of previous trips to India and her own worries for her biracial niece, who will not have even the ties she has. While very different in tone, Koul’s writings about her family reminded me to some extent of Jhumpa Lahiri’s beautifully written tales about the educated Indian immigrant experience in New England.
Initially inspired by David Sedaris, Koul is more free-form and very direct. Her writing is less spare and polished than his earlier works like Me Talk Pretty One Day. She is most powerful when discussing the intersections between feminism, sexism, multiculturalism, and social media. When she speaks of her own experience being roofied, she also talks about being surveilled in bars and at parties by men assessing women as increasingly easy lays in an inebriated setup for rape culture. As she trenchantly notes, “When a guy asks to buy you a drink, suggest he buy you a snack instead and see how that goes over.” Koul also thoughtfully discusses the unfiltered viciousness of people criticizing one another on social media, and what fuels such attacks.
As a Generation X reader who thinks people should be whacked with their selfie sticks, I had difficulty with a raunchy Lena Dunhamesque self-absorption that occasionally pops in and out of Koul’s writing. Even when she writes about her alcoholic former friend while attempting her own Dry January cleanse, it’s unclear whether she, at 26, sees her own normalized tendency towards binge drinking with friends and colleagues as just a fact or a problem as well. She reminds me of what it was like to be in my 20s, still close enough to college for it not to have receded completely in the rearview mirror while staying up-to-date with pop culture and making the world my own.
Scaachi Koul’s One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter offers a fresh, sarcastic perspective that punched me with humor and pain. I look forward to reading her again.