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Perspective | Emma Cline’s ‘The Guest’: Let’s discuss that ending

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The following story contains spoilers for the novel “The Guest.”

“If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story,” Orson Welles said. Imagine, for instance, if “Anna Karenina” or “The Great Gatsby” had concluded a few chapters earlier. The endings might not have been happy, but Anna wouldn’t be under the wheels of a train or Gatsby floating face down in a swimming pool.

Perhaps no recent novel has generated more buzz about an ending than Emma Cline’s terrific sophomore novel, “The Guest.” (In 2016, she gave us a stunning debut, “The Girls.”) There’s a lot to love in “The Guest,” a tale of a 22-year-old sometimes sex worker in the Hamptons named Alex who has wound up homeless after getting kicked out of her sugar daddy’s summer place a week before Labor Day with no place to go. Her plan? Simply stay at the tip of the island until her rich ex has his annual end-of-summer blowout and show up uninvited; then, Alex convinces herself, all will be forgiven and he’ll take her back.

Emma Cline sets a smoldering thriller in the Hamptons

And after a hero’s journey involving drinking, drugs, riptides, car accidents (one minor, one not), sleeping with a teen, “borrowing” a child from his nanny at an exclusive swim club, finding (and losing) a dog and avoiding a threatening fellow named Dom from whom she stole a lot of money (all gone now), she does get to that Labor Day party, where …

I won’t spoil it for you.

But I will tell you I was drawn to the book in part because I read the reviews and saw so many social media posts where people said they had to talk about the ending. They had to. Novelist Keziah Weir (“The Mythmakers”) wrote a terrific article about it (with, as she warns us, “spoilers galore”) in Vanity Fair, including lots of folks weighing in on what the ending means. Conjectures include Alex being dead — She’s a ghost! — and the idea she’s not dead … yet … but will be any second thanks to the aforementioned Dom or that increasingly agitated teen boy with whom she slept.

I would say the ending is a glorious fever dream, but, in some ways, the whole novel is a fever dream. In fact, it’s kind of a nightmare, as this young woman who knows that her survival depends on her youth and beauty and clean breath is living out of a small overnight bag and discovering that, alas, she’s starting to stink and her breath just might not be great. Her phone, which she accidentally brought with her into a swimming pool while cavorting inappropriately at a Hamptons soiree — one of the reasons her older, pseudo-boyfriend sends her packing — is a classic midnight phantasm. Just like those nightmare airplanes that never quite get off the ground or those nightmare business meetings you never quite get to on time, her phone never quite works. It switches on just long enough for her to see a threatening message or call from Dom, and then it shuts down. And still Alex clutches it like a life preserver.

‘The Girls,’ by Emma Cline: Charles Manson, reimagined

She was always a hot mess, but by the end of the novel, she may be just a mess. Which meant I devoured the book. “Dad,” my daughter said to me once after reading a rough draft of one of my own novels, her tone kind and a little bemused, “take this as a compliment, because I mean it that way. But I think one of your sweet spots as a writer is seriously messed-up young women.”

I wasn’t offended. I knew she was right. The truth is, I’m drawn to novels where people make very bad decisions — often the sorts of books that compel readers to flood Goodreads with comments like, “I couldn’t relate to the main character because every choice she made was moronic.” Write me a character like Camille Preaker, the self-loathing, alcoholic cutter at the center of Gillian Flynn’s “Sharp Objects,” and I’m hooked. To paraphrase Emma Lazarus, give me your damaged, your flawed, your huddled masses yearning not to screw up yet again.

So, that ending. Aristotle suggested that the perfect ending is both surprising and inevitable. We don’t see it coming, but we can’t imagine the story ending any other way. There are exceptions, of course, including any book, movie or musical about the Titanic. The same goes for rom-coms.

Emma Cline has done something that I think is courageous. She ignores Aristotle and our conventional notions of happy endings and tragic denouements. With few exceptions, books usually begin in media res — in the middle of things. But they don’t end there. Authors tell us how their characters’ journeys have ended. They lived happily ever after, for instance, or you’re reading Cormac McCarthy.

But Cline ends her novel in media res. Alex seems to have gotten to the party, but the fever dream continues. Would she be dead if Cline had written one more page or even one more sentence? How about arrested? Hospitalized? Or merely escorted from the soiree? Might she be reconciled with the party’s host and her former sugar daddy? (Nope. Not in this universe.) That’s the thing about nightmares and dreams. They have their own logic and their own rules. And that, I think, is why anyone who has read “The Guest” wants to find someone to talk to.

Chris Bohjalian is the author of 24 books, including “The Flight Attendant,” “Hour of the Witch” and the forthcoming “The Princess of Las Vegas.”

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POST AUTHOR: Chris Bohjalian

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