The Exene Chronicles
(Kindred Books, 2020)
Camille A. Collins’s debut novel The Exene Chronicles is a YA coming-of-age story set in 1980s California. While offering a slice of punk rock nostalgia around influential punk band X and frontwoman Exene Cervenka, the book also explores racism, sexuality, and the ways society often positions young women as transactional commodities with their worth based on their whiteness, their appearance, and their ability to please men. In many ways punk rock at its core rebelled against such cultural strictures but, as Patricia Morrison (ex-Bags, The Damned) sums it up, in Los Angeles, “women started getting pushed out of punk when the (male) violence started.” For Exene Cervenka, the early LA punk scene was diverse but not consciously so: “We were just boys. We were girls. We were men. We were women. We were gay. We were straight. We were Black, White, Chinese, Asian, Latino. Nobody made a badge out of their hyphenated being.” But both Morrison and Cervenka are White; Lia, Collins’s protagonist, is a young Black girl in a place and time where Black people are rare (Lia’s school had only three Black students) and racism is rampant. That’s not to say that it’s any better these days. Racism is entrenched in American culture; punk has largely become a male amalgamation of White boy pop and over produced commercial teen fodder. There are exceptions of course (Russia’s Pussy Riot the most obvious).
Listening to the new X album (Alphabetland April, 2020) while reading Collins’s novel, it’s difficult not to be overcome by waves of nostalgia. But the world Lia lives in is one I can’t claim to understand. The dangers of being a girl in the world of men, of trying to form an identity other than the feminine-sexy girl-woman society wanted us all to be in the 1980s, the excitement of being front and center as Exene comes out on stage—all of these resonate for me. But I can’t imagine the terror of being a 14year-old Black girl, tiny and alone, walking through a dark city where men scream racial epithets at me; the humiliation and fear of being attacked by a friend’s skinhead brother just for existing. And this is part of the key to Collins’s novel: it’s not just about being a girl, it’s not just about early California punk, it’s about being a young Black girl who loves Exene and wants to be loved for who she is.
The novel is written in a series of vignettes: some from Lia’s perspective, some from the perspective of her White “overly developed” best girlfriend Ryan. There are brief interruptions of an ongoing fictional dialogue between Ronnie Spector and Exene Cervenka (we learn later these dialogues are generated by Lia and Ryan while they play with paper dolls of their two icons). We also see Ryan’s much older boyfriend exploring his fear, insecurity, and obsessive love for Ryan. Half-Mexican and full of self-loathing, he seems to think if he marries a White girl with peroxide hair, he will somehow become more White. The horrifying narrative of Neil and Ryan’s relationship is framed as a sort of teenage runaway love story; it’s highly problematic as Neil is 21 and Ryan only 14 but Collins is working to present her characters’ point of view: they’re obsessed with each other and law and morality don’t come into it. While the scenes with Neil and Ryan are readable enough in a YA melodrama sort of way, it’s Lia’s story, her love for her idol Exene, and the art that she generates around this love that are the most compelling.
The two best friends are inseparable: together they shop in thrift stores, listen to records, and find ways to go see the punk rock film The Decline of Western Civilization (Spheeris, 1981). They hold hands, copy each other’s makeup and, together, create a book of collage and poetry that they aim to give Exene when X next plays San Diego. But these lovely childhood moments are lost once Ryan discovers that she enjoys male attention. Lia, much more a young girl in body and desires, tries to keep up with her friend but when Ryan disappears, Lia finds solace in X. Lia begins to write poem-prayers to Exene and when a classmate discovers one, Lia begins an exhausting project of writing poem-prayers by request for various students: a young woman whose period is late, another whose grandmother has cancer, but Lia is aware enough to realize all of these poems, everything she is doing is all to bring Ryan back.
When Ryan hasn’t returned in time for the next X show in San Diego, Lia buys two tickets and goes anyway, hoping somehow to conjure her missing friend back into being. Instead Lia decides all of her prayers, her entreaties to Exene, were pointless and she lets her precious collagebook fall to the floor of the club. As if to come closer to her missing friend, Lia then puts herself into a dire situation, using her body to somehow pay penance, a sort of sacrifice for her friend.
The novel ends with a surprising twist but our faith in Lia is redeemed. As her hero Exene has said, “You can only be you. You can’t really be someone else.” Collins’s first novel is a strong attempt at exploring the ways young women learn to be themselves in a world that often wants them to be someone else.