In the early pages of Lolita, the pedophile Humbert Humbert infamously designates girls between the ages of nine and fourteen as “nymphets,” or those whose “true nature” is “not human, but nymphic (that is, demoniac).” There are many depictions in literature, often written by men, of adolescent girls as otherworldly, half-grown bodies without knowledge of womanhood—possessing such inexplicable allure that it must be witchcraft or demonic possession. But where Lolita has tricked many into believing that it’s a love story, Emily Temple’s debut novel, The Lightness, creates no such illusions. Instead, Temple cleaves open the darker underbelly of girlhood, from the allure of all-absorbing female friendships to the misinterpretation of adult intentions, examining the way storytelling and memory can collide to disastrous effect. In doing so, she unspools the canonical narrative that manufactures “demoniac” girls.
From the first page, we know that a death has occurred. The now-adult protagonist, Olivia, recounts the events leading up to this death by describing the summer she ran away to what she calls the “Buddhist Boot Camp for Bad Girls,” where rebellious teens practice meditation at the renowned Levitation Center. High in the mountains, the Center is rumored to be one of the few places in the world where levitation is possible. It’s also the last place Olivia’s Buddhist father visited before he disappeared, and she hopes to find some leftover scrap of him through her own enlightenment.
The other girls at the Center are “slick-finish girls, cat-eye girls, hot-blood girls;” the clichéd bad girls found in every school and neighborhood. They are would-be nymphets, and like Humbert’s Lolita, whose given name is Dolores, these girls exist somewhere between the personas assigned to them by adults and their individual experiences of girlhood. They are angry, bored, and “so full up of feeling that they couldn’t simply do their times tables.” Olivia befriends a trio that the rest of the girls avoid. Led by the enigmatic and fearsome Serena, who is followed diligently by the impenetrable Janet and effervescent Laurel, the group embarks on a journey toward enlightenment. They drink whiskey, try to give one another “The Feeling” (pre-coinage ASMR), read Buddhist texts, and starve themselves in order to be lighter. They pursue the Center’s gardener and resident heartthrob, a young man named Luke, who Serena believes can teach them to levitate.
To Serena (and eventually, the rest of the group), levitation means power. It means pushing back against social convention, against manipulation, against those who might seek to control a young girl. “Every girl wanted more from the world. Every girl wants magic, to transcend the mundanity of her life. Every girl wants power,” Temple writes. But in their search for lightness, Serena manipulates the group into increasingly perilous positions.
The girls meet every night at “the rock palm,” an overhang off the mountain, where Serena warns Olivia to stay away from the edge. But in the darkness “it was impossible to see the place where rock became air.” This inability to distinguish between solidness and darkness, ground and void, afflicts all the novel’s characters. Just as goodness and badness become inextricable amid the Center’s Buddhist teachings, the questions of levitation itself—is it real? Can a man help them attain it?—become tangled in uncertainties of power and perception.
At Temple’s high altitudes, little is as it appears. “We are what we think,” the girls repeat as a mantra. This idea haunts Olivia, years later, as she attempts to parse her own memories and realizes how malleable they can be.
Last year in a piece for the New York Times, Parul Sehgal described a new literary category: books that could be considered “#MeToo novels,” but which, more specifically, “occupy the backwaters where the writer need not pander or persuade, and can instead seek to understand, or merely complicate, something for herself.” In The Lightness, Emily Temple asks readers to interrogate their presumptions, underlining Olivia’s quest for truth with the contradictory teachings of Buddhism, and transforming the now-clichéd narrative of the enlightenment-seeking Beat Poet or high-brow-intellectual-turned-Zen-master into an examination of power. This “habit of skepticism toward the self” that Sehgal describes permeates Temple’s pages, as Olivia attempts to recount and correct her story. Though, at times, a running commentary on Buddhist history and etymology creates unnecessary lulls in the narrative, Olivia’s methodical approach to her own past is also an attempt at clarifying it.
Olivia’s detached attempts at dissecting her memories as an adult slowly construct truth out of rubble. Because her memories are deceptive, shrouded in the misunderstandings of youth, it takes logic rather than recollection to understand the events leading up to the last night on the rock palm. “It was only at this moment, as I was writing it down,” she says, mulling over the timeline she had accepted for years, “that I thought about it enough to realize that it wasn’t, couldn’t be, true.”
Temple is constantly reminding us not to trust the words we read, to be wary of interpretation. Luke is a warm refuge in the garden, with gentle hands and ropey muscles. Serena is manipulative and beautiful, ruthless in her determination to get what she wants. Yet at varying moments they swap these roles, and Olivia is caught between surrounding influences, uncertain even by the end of her story what really happened that summer. “Does this constant tracing and retracing make me less the witness, or more?” she asks.
Off the mountain leans a gnarled willow tree, rumored to be the body of a woman crying for her lost love. “Does it seem like an inordinate number of the world’s geological features were supposedly created by crying women?” Janet asks. Present-day Olivia immediately offers examples: the stories of Niobe, Daphne, and Isis, whose pain bore stone, lake, and river, respectively. Dissecting the history of language alongside the mythology of women, she muses, “Kisses, as you know, are often keys. They have been known to unlock sleeping damsels…they open mouths, and also arms, and often legs. Of course, kisses can also be locks: sealed with a kiss, kiss the bride, the kiss of death.” Olivia then recounts the original story of Sleeping Beauty, in which a woman is raped by a passing king while unconscious. Her “happy ending” is narrowly escaping death only to marry her rapist.
Temple’s skepticism toward our canonical assumptions extends to the very belief system her characters embrace. She situates Olivia’s idolization of older men like her father and Luke alongside Americans’ adoption of Eastern philosophies such as Buddhism, which often requires investment in a mentor or teacher. Invoking the brilliant but haunted fictional family of J.D. Salinger’s short fiction, she writes of “high-chair philosophers spouting the Glass family values,” following spiritual “gurus” who dangle enlightenment as bait. But in “looking to hook themselves to someone else’s old magic,” many of these followers implicitly condone other abuses, or experience coercion themselves.
It’s relatively well known that Salinger was interested in both Zen Buddhism and pursuing relationships with much younger girls. In Franny and Zooey, the Glass family prodigies are steeped in post-peak depression, and Franny’s existential breakdown comes paired with asceticism. When Franny abandons her date to cry in the bathroom at Sickler’s restaurant, Salinger describes that way “her extended fingers, though trembling, or because they were trembling, looked oddly graceful and pretty.” In Salinger’s fiction, vulnerability becomes synonymous with appeal. Franny’s brilliance is a burden, but instead of eliciting concern this cements her allure. As a girl, I wanted to be like Franny: fragile, ephemeral, intellectual. But Franny is in crisis, made beautiful by her hungry audience. The girls at the Center are struggling too, searching for something to believe in. It makes them vulnerable, but Temple never mistakes vulnerability for weakness, nor for worth.
Later on, Olivia recalls her childhood impulse to protect her father from her mother, who “didn’t understand that my father was inherently good and therefore deserved the benefit of the doubt.” In The Lightness, as in our own world, men are so often given the benefit of the doubt. They are allowed to roam and flirt and invade and deny, while girls remain bad, dangerous, demoniac.
Though Olivia leaves for the Center to escape her mother and discover her father, in the end it is her mother who earns her respect. Described as “logical and harsh and unbelieving,” her mother is grounded in contrast to the promise of lightness; she is opinionated, intimidating, and, at times, violent. She sculpts massive women out of clay—wrinkled, hulking figures called “The Fatties,” who accumulate in the weeks after Olivia’s father leaves. “I hadn’t seen it before,” Olivia admits, “the power in taking up space.” As an adult, she rejects a youth of spirituality for science, mirroring the way Temple herself refuses a readily available narrative in favor of something more twisted and confused. In The Lightness, it is in casting off fragility, ephemerality, and adult male fantasy that both the author and her protagonist find truth.