“Clique”: a small, close-knit group of people who do not readily allow others to join them. Pack. Set. Gang. As most people who have survived the battlegrounds of childhood can attest, cliques can be summed up in brutal monosyllables: In/Out. Us/Them.
Yet do cliques deserve all the negative press? Some of the greatest literary movements were spurred by collective energy. The Algonquin Round Table traded bons mots over daily lunches. The Lost Generation migrated in flocks. The Bloomsbury group shunned bourgeois values. The Beats met at Columbia, the Inklings at Oxford. These were cliques, but they were also catalysts for creativity.
Exploring what makes such collectives tick has been crucial to my debut novel. Swan Song examines the close bonds Truman Capote shared with the mid-20th century’s powerful elite – the women he called his Swans. Having infiltrated their dazzling sphere, Capote would ultimately commit an unforgivable crime: publishing their secrets in extracts from his never-finished roman à clef Answered Prayers. By nature of their status and long-standing friendships, the Swans were the ultimate clique. They allowed Capote entry, but when he transgressed, they bit back, and he was out. To punish him for his betrayal, they used the clique’s most damaging weapon: exclusion.
Here are my Top 10 cliques in fiction, spanning ages, genders and eras.
1. The Secret History by Donna Tartt
For me, Tartt’s alluring set of scholars reigns as the ideal literary clique, the one I’d have relished joining at age 18 (messy murder factor aside). Outsider Richard Papen is drawn to the striking quintet he observes on campus: Henry Winter, alpha-classicist, English suits and steely reserve; Francis Abernathy, angular and elegant, “a cross between a student Prince and Jack the Ripper”; “relentlessly cheery” Bunny Corcoran; twins Charles and Camilla Macaulay, pale romantic visions, “like long-dead celebrants from some forgotten garden party”. Richard is eager to join their rarified circle, devoted to mentor Julian’s creed of Hellenic beauty. So great is his desire to join, Richard allows himself to commit murder alongside them. This clique’s deterioration in the wake of their collective decision is what gives the novel its potency.
2. Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood
Asked what Cat’s Eye was about, Margaret Atwood said: “Little girls are not made of sugar and spice … Even in books for little girls, you usually have the best friend and the worst enemy. In real life these are often the same person.” Returning to Toronto for a retrospective of her paintings, adult Elaine Risley confronts memories of her childhood adversary, Cordelia. She remembers when Cordelia usurped her best friends Grace and Carol, irrevocably altering their group dynamic. The three bullied Elaine, abuse escalating to physical jeopardy. In adolescence, Elaine re-establishes contact with Cordelia, taunting her former tormenter. The novel moves between past and present, where Elaine still bears the scars.
3. Deadkidsongs by Toby Litt
If Cat’s Eye addresses the devastation wreaked by girls, Deadkidsongs speaks to the terrifying potential of the boys’ clique. Andrew, Matthew, Paul and Peter form “Gang” and occupy their days playing elaborate games of “War”. They assess and mimic the adults around them, admiring the abusive masculinity of “The Best Father”, scorning another’s ineffectual pacifism. Litt mines the dark mindset of the young male clique.
4. The Group by Mary McCarthy
Countless books chart college cliques’ transition from idyllic campus life to adulthood, fuelled by ambition and uncertainty. Each owes a debt to the mid-century novel that spawned the genre: 1954’s The Group, which follows eight Vassar graduates. McCarthy’s bestseller shattered female taboos, discussing work, sex, marriage and motherhood with unprecedented frankness. Complex truths of chosen sisterhoods are laid bare; their joys, frustrations, rivalries and their inescapable presence in one another’s lives.
5. The Clique: A Novel of the Sixties by Ferdinand Mount
Written in 1978, republished in 2010, The Clique follows rookie reporter Gunn Goater, who arrives in London from the provinces, eager to cover the impending demise of Winston Churchill. Waiting outside his subject’s residence, he spies a “little crowd” of five, theatrically dressed, epitomising the Swinging 60s that eluded him in Lincolnshire. The Clique is a sharp work of postwar, pre-Thatcher satire, set against crumbling communal flats and love-ins – a milieu to which Gunn is wholly unsuited.
6. The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides
Eugenides presents the reader with two distinct groups – the collective voice of the narrators, a group of teenage boys in suburban Detroit, and the objects of their obsessive fascination: the beautiful, doomed Lisbon sisters, whose tragic fate is revealed in the opening line. The Lisbons are the most enduring example of the familial clique. They are connected not only by blood, but by increasing isolation from their peers, voiceless victims of an overprotective, evangelical Catholic mother. The boys observe from afar, haunted by their memories even in middle age. It’s their shared requiem that lingers.
7. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
A vastly different vision of the male teenage clique, this is a dystopian nightmare of young men linked by brutality. Alex and his gang of “droogs” imbibe drug-laced “Knifey Moloko”, preparing for a night of sociopathic violence. They rob, rape and kill in a series of horrific crimes. There’s a hierarchy within the group, which gives way to tensions, in-fighting and challenges for dominance. Alex is betrayed, leading to his incarceration and “aversion therapy”. The clique is defined by callous detachment, desire for power and violence-as-pornography. It raises chilling questions about gang mentality and free will.
8. The Parasites by Daphne du Maurier
A variation on the clique-as-kin scenario. The Delaneys are a blended family: step-siblings Maria, Niall and Celia, raised by theatrical parents. Narrated by one of the three (which one is cleverly left to conjecture), this is the story of their insular group – a circle closed to friends, husbands and lovers alike. In fact, Maria and Niall share an incestuous romantic bond. Maria’s husband says: “You prey on each other, living in a world of fantasy.” Of themselves, the Delaneys concede: “We have earned, not always fairly we consider, the reputation of being difficult guests.”
9. The Girls by Emma Cline
Cults hold morbid fascination – none more so than the Manson “family”. Cline focuses on its female followers, as idealised through the eyes of 14-year old Evie Boyd. When Evie spots them in a Petaluma park in the summer of 1969, she is mesmerised: “The day was disturbed by the path the girls cut across the regular world. Sleek and thoughtless as sharks breaching the water.” She’s drawn ever deeper into the group, led by the charismatic, Manson-esque “Russell”. Here is the clique as elective family.
10. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
Like Answered Prayers, this is a roman a clef, its characters drawn from Hemingway’s Lost Generation expatriate clique. Jake Barnes, a journalist rendered impotent by a war wound, is in Paris, locked in a doomed romance with English divorcee Lady Brett Ashley. Their flock migrates from Parisian cafe society to the corridas of Pamplona, where sexual entanglements divide the disillusioned clique. As with Capote’s story, readers were aflutter to unmask the real-life cast. But The Sun Also Rises cemented Hemingway’s reputation while Answered Prayers destroyed Capote’s.