The Lightness by Emily Temple review – fetishising girlhood
A quest to master the dark art of levitation: this sly echo of The Secret History is entertaining but underpowered
10 June 2020
t is elitist, precocious, histrionic and oh-so-earnest, but The Secret History – Donna Tartt’s 1992 debut about murderous classics students – is literary alchemy, a cult novel that is beloved for all the reasons why it shouldn’t work. Decades of imitators have only succeeded in making its singular magic more potent.
Emily Temple’s first novel, The Lightness, is one of the more preposterous Secret History facsimiles: in place of hedonistic scholars, Temple gives us nihilistic Buddhists on a quest to master the dark and furtive art of levitation. It is a premise that requires a mighty belief in suspension in order to suspend disbelief.
Sixteen-year-old Olivia has run away (“if you can really call it running away when you leave plain tracks and credit card receipts and no one bothers to come after you”). She’s taken herself to a geographically elusive, “pan-spiritual contemplative community” for high-altitude, high-end soul searching. It’s the last place her father visited before he vanished, and, according to legend, is “the only bit of land left in America where levitation was still possible, at least for those with the correct set of aptitudes”.
|High-end soul searching ... Olivia, the narrator, goes to a Buddhist boot camp. Photograph: Dmitrii Dikushin/|
Olivia arrives in time for a Buddhist boot camp, the kind of course wealthy parents impose on their unruly daughters. And how rhapsodically “bad” these girls seem to be: “They were slick-finish girls, cat-eye girls, hot-blood girls. They were girls who revelled ... They were girls who left marks. They were girls who snuck.” Yet up on the mountain they dutifully take classes in Japanese flower arranging and Zen archery, do their chores and eat kale by the ladleful. Occasionally they glower at each other across the dining hall. It must be all the thin mountain air.
The grand exception is an imperious trio of rule breakers: there’s athletic Janet with her purple hair; soft and sensual Laurel, “an idiot savant for secrets”; and ringleader Serena, who speaks in kōans and has her “cold-mirror heart” set on the ultimate act of transcendence. Together they lounge in Serena’s elaborately cushioned tent, eating almonds, drinking whiskey and practising ASMR techniques.
Serena is a folkloric creature around whom elaborate rumours swirl: witch, werewolf, virgin, slut. The consensus is she’s not to be approached. But Serena seems to recognise something kindred in painfully self-aware Olivia, and Olivia convinces herself that levitation is the way she will find her missing father. “If I did what he did, loved what he loved, believed what he believed, I too might be transformed. Into what exactly, I didn’t know ... a girl worth coming back for.”
For guidance in the art of being insubstantial, the girls turn to Luke, a twentysomething gardener with a luxurious topknot, mythic cheekbones and “strong digging arms” – a hipster incarnation of Lady Chatterley’s smouldering lover. The Lightness does not need its ceaseless foreshadowing for us to intuit that things will not end well. After all, Luke lives in a cabin in the woods, and “when, pray tell, has any little girl ever found anything good in a cabin in the woods?”
And so let us play a round of The Secret History bingo. An ungainly cipher of a narrator; check. A sleek clique of gorgeously broken young people; check. An ethereal bubble of unfettered privilege; check. A quest for transcendent oblivion that turns menacing; bingo. There is even a cheeky suggestion in the book’s final pages that Temple’s floating fairytale exists in a similar universe to Tartt’s New England Greek tragedy. But while The Secret History was a novel of soul-curdling aftermaths, bisected by its murder, The Lightness is simply a novel of a looming bad thing. And we know the rough shape the bad thing will take from the novel’s very first page. “A suicide, they said. Nothing to suggest otherwise. If not a suicide, perhaps an accident. The steep cliff, the shifting rocks.”
Where The Lightness does carry weight is in its scenes away from the mountain and its manic pixie dream friends, as we watch Olivia’s family disintegrate: her artist mother who creates voluptuous sculptures of women out of steel; her aloof father who wears blue tinted contacts over his blue eyes for extra dazzle. It’s here that Temple shows us why Olivia might yearn to be untethered.
It is hard to shake the lurking sense – the hope – that The Lightness might reveal itself to be a sublimely subversive satire; a much-needed parody of our abiding literary fetishisation of girlhood, with all of its idolatrous hunger and coiled sensuality, or perhaps a scabrous caricature of pumpkin spice spirituality. Temple’s description of the mountaintop centre, with its grab bag of courses from iridology to tantric sex, has promising raw-toothed bite. “I’ve come to be suspicious of American practitioners of Eastern philosophies,” grown-up Olivia confides. “There’s something so rapacious about them ... All that performative kindness. All that practised calm.”
Which is why it is so dispiriting that her novel opts instead for a twee permutation of a story we have seen so many times before. The Lightness leads us to the precipice, but when it comes time to make a bold literary leap, it loses its nerve.