Stralian Stories: just_a_girl by Kirsten Krauth
by Klare Lanson
“the moment that I step outside
so many reasons for me to run and hide”
(lyrics by Gwen Stefani and Tom Dumont)
We’re all kinds of mixed up creatures, trying to find that spark in our lives that allows immersion into the world. We connect, and we use the Internet as a tool to socially interact with others. These virtual experiences are competing more and more equally with our physical world, often more real than reality itself. Is this really such a bad thing? There’s so much hype around the negative attributes of social media usage; how it affects us in both short and long-term ways. Whilst it’s important to be aware of the negative implications, it shouldn’t take centre stage. This kind of connectivity is still quite young and so is our thinking about it. And this is why I wanted to read Kirsten Krauth’s first novel just_a_girl.
Krauth has chosen to highlight Internet usage to share ideas around our everyday struggles and often-internalised fears of engaging with the people around us. Fear of connection and social error seem to be the overriding themes, but there is certainly more at play here. just_a_girl is a novel with structure resembling a triptych painting that’s been hung sideways. Three characters emerge through brushstrokes and are hinged together; the links are both strong and subtle. It’s about a teenage girl coming of age, her mother’s often internalised and fast paced struggle with the loneliness of social error and single parenting, and a beautifully poetic and introverted man who finds synthetic love in all its realness. But above all, it’s about the Internet.
The current generation of kids and teenagers are growing up with intuitive knowledge of how to operate online. Like most teenagers, the well-developed character of Layla with her cleverly clipped and sometimes faltering voice is firmly planted by Krauth to show us the breadth of ease teenagers have in this realm. They effortlessly choreograph their lives through social media, dance around the Internet uploading here, downloading there and quickly find alternative answers to the constant internal questions of sex, life and love.
The Internet’s a valuable place for experimentation but as Layla shows us, parents who fear technology, or occasionally glance over their right shoulder may be unaware of the kind of experiments being undertaken, however ‘normal’ they may be. Perhaps our children will look at us in the future and shrug their shoulders, just as past generations did when showing their parents for the umpteenth time how to use an answering machine or the video recorder.
“I like hooking up with guys online. There are no boys at my high school I’m into. Davo’s starting to wear thin. Even though he’s 18 now. I need more brainpower. And I get to test them out on the net. I like the conversation. You can reveal more. When there’s a screen between you and them.”
The screen is simply another in between space. just_a_girl speaks to us of the issues that arise when the role of parenting is out of kilter with social media usage and the Internet. It reminds us that the keyboard can be used as a weapon, where every keystroke holds the power of persuasion.
The second character to be introduced is Margot, Layla’s mother. Not only does she have no real concept of social media usage, she treats the Internet as a passive space, a simple extension to the televisual, rather than an interactive environment that grows organically as it continues to be used. Her internalised and anxiety driven ramblings unravel her childhood, her previous marriage, her relationship with her daughter and her religion; this voice not only rings the bell of the single mother who is collapsing under the strain of bringing up a child alone, but also as an individual whose past forces her to walk into relationships with her eyes closed, preferring fantasy over reality. Her passive use of the Internet is a fantastic metaphor for how she relates; watching her soap star Pastor on billboards, online and within the theatre of the church. A Pastor who blurs the boundaries of his flock (and more importantly, his flocks’ children) is certainly not part of her fantasy.
“I have been listening to Pastor Bevan’s podcasts each day as I find it so comforting to be able to plug him in when I’m driving to see a client, you know, he truly is created in the Lord’s image, and at home it’s even better because at lunchtime I can watch him streaming on the net and it’s like having your own takeaway church right there, drive on through…”
And Layla’s dad’s not much better:
“That’s my new screensaver to remind me of you when you head back down south.”
The characters Krauth creates have depth and intertwine beautifully to create a rich construction of atmosphere and place. Probably my favourite character is Tadashi, the quiet and unassuming man who chooses to have a meaningful and loving relationship with a sex doll, yet another form of techno-orientalism. His thought processes transform the seemingly sordid world of sex dolls into a tender and heartbreaking story of love and loss. Most importantly, the tension created between the two female characters is heightened significantly by the use of this quiet and demure narrative, the soft tonality, the resting point, a ghostlike trail of privacy. Tadashi uses the Internet as a means to an end, a connection of commerce and love, the ultimate delivery system.
“He returned to the wigs on eBay, weighing up the length, colour and style, what she might like to be seen in. He imagined her flicking her ponytail or peeking from beneath a fringe, sharing a laugh. As she was very petite and he’d read that small women look taller — their figure more elongated — with a cropped cut, he settled on the Pamela, naturally yours, a short, straight brunette bob with a fringe.”
I don’t think it really matters whether we read this novel via the book or the eBook, but it is a book that should be read. Kirsten Krauth has hit the nail on the head, successfully weaving a poignant and multi-layered voice of ‘busy loneliness’ in the digital age. The three narratives travel through ideas of social networks, online communication and how this affects our relationships with each other in the physical world. This book houses gritty realism, hyper-love and new definitions of what it means to be alone.
just_a_girl by Kirsten Krauth is out through UWA press, can be found in all good bookstores and is also available as an eBook via iBook and Amazon. Kirsten is based in Castlemaine and can be found blogging at wildcolonialgirl.wordpress.com/
Klare Lanson is a writer, poet, performance maker, sound artist, data consultant, arts worker, past editor of Australian Literary Anthology Going Down Swinging and presents Turn Left at the Baco on Castlemaine Community Radio WMAfm. Her current project is #wanderingcloud.