It is in the sixth grade that we are assigned to read O.T. Nelson’s The Girl Who Owned A City (perhaps merely an anomalous part of the reading curriculum in California). Because kids have a tendency to go along with most everything adults say at that age, it doesn’t come across as entirely strange or disturbing to be reading a dystopian YA novel about a virus that wipes out all adults leaving only preadolescents behind. It seems, instead, “interesting”–seductively fascinating–to think that this could be the future that kids like us grow up in.
And maybe even, more than we know, it is an eye-opening how-to guide for survival. Or at least what to expect when you’re trying to survive. For whenever the act of survival is stripped down to the barest minimum, it somehow becomes even more of a challenge to enact the most basic of its tenets without running into extreme competition. Lisa, our heroine, and the ringleader of those in her neighborhood, learns this quickly, forced to grow up well beyond her ten years in order to fend for herself and her younger brother, Todd.
Opening with the adage, of sorts, “Animals, maybe, aren’t so lucky. All they do is what they do–what their instincts tell them. They can’t invent plans, and make choices, and dream about tomorrow.” This is, at least, what humans living a post-apocalyptic existence must tell themselves. That there is always “tomorrow,” a new chance to make things better, to rebuild that which has been destroyed. Such naively idealistic thoughts are best suited to a generation of children left behind by their parents, assuring themselves that “rebuilding” is what their progenitors would want them to do–and, as usual, we are all somehow driven by the wishes of our parents, even when they’re in the ground.
The eerie similarity to the fact that the coronavirus seems to have no effect whatsoever on children (save for their blithe ability to spread it like a man-whore with his seed and not deal with any of the consequences later) is also present in the premise of The Girl Who Owned A City. While “looting” (though she reasons you can’t loot from a place that no longer belongs to anyone) an abandoned house, Lisa’s discovery of a now deceased father’s letter to his son drives home the point with the message, “On the last news broadcast, they said the virus was spreading all over the world. It’s the worst plague in history. They say that for some strange reason the sickness is not fatal to children under the age of about twelve years. No adult can survive the infection. As crazy as it sounds, soon there may be no adults left in the world, anywhere.”
At one time, this thought was post-apocalyptic, so unthinkable it could only exist in genres labeled “sci-fi” or “dystopian,” but now, it feels like a reality more palpable even than the premise of 1984. That the book was first published in 1975, during one of the U.S.’ economic nadirs, speaks to the bleak outlook adults of the time had on things, just as they do now. But if they thought it was bad then, one would love to see how they might react to the slack-jawed, dull-eyed response to chaos in the present. What can undeniably be said for those who came of age in the 70s is that technology (paired with nothing much to do apart from see Jaws and partake of disco) did not make them complacent or fragile. A lack of it forced them to be anything but. Somewhat overzealously billed on its dust jacket as, “Not since Lord of the Flies has there been such a powerful story of children forced to survive in a world without adults,” The Girl Who Owned A City might not have been put out in today’s market. Because the thing was, most kids growing up in the 70s were faced with harsh realities to begin with, in a way that the youth of the present quite simply is not, thanks to being more bubble-wrapped (despite “exposure” to certain “mature themes” on the internet) by their parents.
As proud son of the decade Bret Easton Ellis crystallizes it in White, “The books I read and the movies I watched insisted that the world was a random and cruel place, that danger and death were everywhere, that adults could help you only so much, that there was another world–a secret one beneath the fantasy and the fake safety of everyday life. Horror movies and horror fiction helped me grasp all of this at an early age. By the time I read Stephen King’s Night Shift, his first collection of short stories in 1978–having already read Carrie, Salem’s Lot and The Shining numerous times–few illusions about the supposed neutral innocence of my childhood, or anybody else’s, remained.”
This is, in fact, precisely why a book like The Girl Who Owned A City was created for eventual Gen X kids like Easton Ellis in the 70s, later becoming a bit scandalous to teach to the frail souls that would be deemed millennials as they came of age (what’s more, this reader has never since heard of it being taught in any elementary school curriculum, possibly going the way of the dodo when Gen Z came to roost).
Let us take into account another auteur who came to fruition in the strange decade that saw three extremely diverse (yet similarly weak) presidents exhibit to the increasingly jaded American people that they had no idea what they were doing: David Lynch, with 1977’s surreal and disturbing Eraserhead. The literary cinema of this inimitable mind (not to mention, of course, his grand TV opus, Twin Peaks) addresses the notion Easton Ellis refers to–of another world lurking beneath the faux clean-cut, hunky dory one presented to us by society, the government and any lackeys thereof who so desperately want to believe the lie is true.
Lisa and her ilk have long since realized the lie, unearthed as their parents started to drop like flies thanks to this incurable virus (although one of the plot points in the book suggests there is a vaccine that those on the verge of teenhood, therefore at greatest risk, can try in order to get better). And it makes her wonder about the strange, almost master-slave rapport that exists between parent and child that causes so much latent resentment in one’s youth. Indeed, “…she thought about the children who had disliked, sometimes even hated, their parents. Most children didn’t like being told what to do or how to do it. But now all the adults were gone.” So it is that, as usual, the caveat of having “freedom” is that it comes with way too much responsibility.
Discussing trying to raid a grocery store nearby, Lisa laments that some other gang of kids had already thought of the idea to get there first. Seeing the cash register pick cleaned, she muses, “What will these kids do with the money? Money is useless now. There are no places to spend it.” This simple assessment cuts to the quick of how, when capitalism’s most fundamental unit is torn asunder, Western society becomes a rabid animal, running around in circles, with absolutely no idea what to do with itself other than chew its own foot off after barking at and biting others with little satisfying avail.
Yet still, the human curse is being programmed to endure, even in the most oracular of conditions. And, when the characteristic of youth is incorporated into that mix, the instinct augments tenfold, for who is more “ready to bounce back” than a demographic that hasn’t been wizened by time, beat down by life’s sadism for enough instances to know that fighting to keep living is nothing short of unbridled masochism?
Lisa and those she leads are just such youthful survivors willing to do whatever it takes to stay afloat as they navigate this new world without adults. The one thing The Girl Who Owned A City might have failed to foresee is that, for the most part, those with adult bodies in the current epoch aren’t really adults at all.