‘Anatomy of a Girl Gang’ by Ashley Little
Author: Daphne Sidor
May 4, 2014
Ashley Little’s Anatomy of a Girl Gang (Arsenal Pulp Press) reads largely as if it could have been written by one or several teenagers. Which is sort of the idea. The novel rotates among the first-person perspectives of its five teenage protagonists, members of the title gang, who form and disband with a bang over the course of a couple of seasons in Vancouver. Teen and gangsta slang abounds, enough so that Little ends the book with a glossary that you probably won’t need if you aren’t flummoxed by “hella” and “gat.”
One of the characters, Z, even delivers her sections entirely in a semi-phonetic hodgepodge of text-speak and graffiti shorthand. Some readers may find this hella annoying, but it’s not hard to imagine a real 13-year-old filling her diary with this sort of thing. The rebellious daughter of strict Chinese-American parents, Z is one of the sweeter characters in the book—she tags buildings not only with gang symbols but with the words “i love you”—and one of the most self-possessed. She identifies as gay even before she meets and falls for gang leader Mac, and she’s the one who seems to least depend on the gang for emotional sustenance.
For the others, though, the gang succors some primal psychic wound. Mac is gangland royalty by virtue of her well-connected biker uncle, but she mourns the potential artistic talent her upbringing by a “crack whore” mother has failed to nurture. (At one point, another character touchingly tells us that Mac has “been sitting at home, making crack, counting our money, watching TV, and learning to paint with Bob Ross all month.”)
Her best friend, Mercy, is the Indian-Canadian orphan of a cab-driver dad and a mother who was killed in a hit and run; naturally, given the book’s sometimes-too-neat symbolic logic, her passion is stealing cars. Kayos, née Kayla, is a weapons enthusiast who uses mixed martial arts to work out her anger at the stepfather who impregnated her at age 13, and Sly Girl is an on-and-off addict of just about everything, running from a beyond-violent upbringing on a First Nations reservation.
In press materials for the book, Little frames Anatomy of a Girl Gang as a “gangster love story,” modeled loosely on Romeo and Juliet. Which tells you how badly things will end, if the fog of hopelessness permeating these girls’ lives didn’t feel sufficiently fatalistic. As adaptors down through the ages have realized, the Shakespeare play gets at something essential about the sheer, sympathetic stupidity of teen love and violence. In that sense, it’s an apt model, but it does seem strange for a book based on Romeo and Juliet to treat its romance so offhandedly. Mac has previously “thought of dykes as weak and kind of nasty,” but we get little insight into how she falls so quickly into a lesbian relationship and what it does to her sense of identity. One moment she and Z are blushing at each other across a coffee shop; the next thing we know, they’re sharing a bed.
That gets back to the book’s narrative style—the other thing placing Anatomy of a Girl Gang at some remove from Shakespeare. This is tough thematic territory to travel without coming off as a clueless outsider or leering voyeur, and it’s easy to imagine why first-person narration, grounded in the intensive research Little’s said she did, might seem like the best solution.
But if teens are already famously inarticulate, it compounds the problem to have them speak as they might to their journals or to friends they’re trying to impress. (Even the city of Vancouver, given voice in its own occasional chapters, seems to be haunted by the ghost of an eighth-grade poetry class’s second-best student.) We see the girls mainly as they choose to present themselves, and almost all the book’s action is filtered through their tough talk. Because they tend to stay on-message about their Dickensian backstories and criminal goals, we miss some of the connective tissue of human idiosyncrasy that lets characters truly move and live.
None of this is apt to matter much to one key demographic: kids hiding Anatomy of a Girl Gang from their parents. The book is far too raw in its depictions of rape, gunplay, and drug use to sit comfortably in the young-adult section, but it seems destined to shock and thrill younger readers—think Go Ask Alice minus the moralizing. The plot moves at top speed, much like the characters themselves: running headlong into the night, propelled by the certainty that everything will fall apart if you stop too long to think.
Anatomy of a Girl Gang
By Ashley Little
Arsenal Pulp Press
Paperback, 9781551525297, 254 pp.