The Golden State
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018)
Lydia Kiesling’s fiction debut is a road trip novel with a twist bringing with it all the basics of road fiction: a search for escape from a difficult situation and a quest for belonging both within the larger landscape of America and within a specific personal sphere. But instead of telling the story of a young man/men or young women on their own and traveling the great American road, this novel focuses on a young mother, Daphne Nilson, and her relationship with "Honey," her just-learning-to-talk toddler. Instead of the usual soul-seeking inner dialogues or buddy conversations one finds in road novels, Kiesling portrays the frazzled and fractured thought processes of a stressed out single mother with her first child using run-on sentences, repetition of words, and omission of punctuation—all of which works to bring the reader in to Daphne’s state of mind.
Although Daphne is struggling, she isn’t without options. She has a mid-level administrative job at a major private university in the Bay Area with a significant salary and self-described gold-plated health care. But she is also suffering: from the absence of her husband (who is having visa troubles), the absence of her family (her parents and grandparents are dead), and the violent death of a young graduate student affiliated with the Institute where she works.
One morning Daphne reaches a breaking point, gathers up her toddler and drives off to the family home. While the home is admittedly a “double-wide” mobile home (a fact that made her mother cringe), Daphne makes the distinction that it has a real foundation giving it a semblance of permanence, something Daphne seems to be searching for. It’s a nice home, fully furnished and welcoming (with even a bottle of vodka in the freezer) and located in the fictional town of Altavista in the equally fictional Paiute County of inland Northern California.
For Daphne, going back to the family home is both a quest for escape and for the safety of a home that no longer exists. This theme of the space and place and the meaning of home when the people who are our family are already gone is a compelling theme in a lot of American fiction, and one of the strengths of the novel lies in Kiesling’s ability to illustrate this particularly American obsession with where we are from and in her descriptions of the vast, empty space of the northern deserts of California. It's not a place most of us know, nor is it the California Joan Didion and others write about. It's a place rife with rural poverty, empty storefronts, crumbling towns, and abandoned ranches. It's a place that exists in some form in many states and that most of us drive through on our way to somewhere else. The sense of absence is palpable in Kiesling’s descriptions of the land while also serving as allegory for the absences in Daphne’s life.
Absence and the loss of her family is paralleled in the separation between Daphne and her husband Engin, a Turkish man whose green card has been illegally revoked under somewhat hazy circumstances. Engin is not a man without resources but that doesn’t make their separation any less emotionally painful. While he waits for a change in his immigration status, he lives with his mother in her upscale apartment in Istanbul. He spends his time with family and friends enjoying himself or so Daphne imagines as she grows increasingly paranoid and lonely. That we only see Engin through Daphne’s point of view is both a critique of the way women are often shown in male-centered novels and also somewhat problematic. There are limitations in attempting to show the narrative of immigration if we only have a white resident American's point of view—even if she is woman who misses her husband and is suffering through the punishing bureaucracy of our Kafkaesque immigration policies.
While Daphne spends time in Altavista caring for Honey, sneaking cigarettes on her deck, and drinking her way through that bottle of vodka, she meets a neighbor involved in rural separatist politics. Daphne's neighbor Cindy is an active member of a group of white locals working toward the formation of a new state although, as Daphne tells us, Cindy is actually "from San Bernadino"—a distinction that most of us from the West will understand. It's difficult to find a part of rural America that isn't suffering from economic decline and doesn't also have some form of ugly extremism; here it's a group supporting the secession of a significant portion of Northern California and part of Oregon into the newly declared State of Jefferson.
And while Daphne inwardly critiques the separatists’ politics, it is frustrating that she doesn’t take the step further of trying to understand how empty storefronts and abandoned homes are not only just part of some broader economic problem but also symptomatic of decades of punishing water policies that favor urban populations. But it’s also equally understandable that it’s hard for Daphne to focus on any deeper critique when Honey demands constant attention as is shown in a scene in the local courthouse when Daphne wants to witness the vote for separatism and Honey goes into full meltdown mode forcing an abrupt departure.
Daphne’s isolation in Altavista is deepened by a lack of WiFi, which makes it difficult for her to Skype with her husband. While at a café with WiFi, Daphne meets the ninety-plus Alice, who speaks some Turkish. Hearing her husband’s language encourages Daphne to reach out, and the women develop an awkward friendship; some of the only moments of adult intimacy in the novel. Alice’s grudging kindness and abrupt way of speaking make a great counterpoint to Daphne’s frenetic energy. Daphne offers to drive Alice to visit a camp in the woods where she had once been happy. The difficult drive and an impending storm shifts the stakes and the pace of the novel moves to thriller speed when a standoff arises between Daphne and the separatists, whose blockade at the main road keeps her from getting to Alice. The storm breaks, Honey howls, and Daphne finally lets her separatist neighbor Cindy have it in a verbal outpouring that rivals the storm. Kiesling's work in these final scenes is excellent; her use of fast-paced language increasing the tension and showing Daphne as the emotional wreck she is.
The novel ends with Daphne telling Honey that they are leaving Altavista, making a move that illustrates that her desire for family is stronger than any other inner logic. This novel is an equally frustrating and beautiful read with a narrator who shows how distracting young motherhood can be while also desperately trying to find a place she can call home.