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Chaos in California.

The Golden State

By Lydia Kiesfing

New York, NY; MCD, 2018, 304 pp., $26.00, hardcover

The most noticeable aspect of Lydia Kiesling's debut novel is its voice. Nearly every sentence is sudden, fast, intense, claustrophobic; it's an energy that keeps up with astonishing consistency across three hundred pages. Kiesling jams together multiple phrases to give the reader a sense of the urgency of its narrator's thoughts and priorities: "Then half-dressed and still dripping I pulled her wailing from the crib and wiped her tears changed her diaper replaced her jammies gave her kisses carried her to the kitchen." Phew.

If the reader is easily exhausted by the frenetic voice in The Golden State, the protagonist wielding that voice, Daphne, is much more so. She is the mother of a small child, holds a meaningless job that has suddenly taken a turn for the tragic, and is coping with marital heartbreak tied cagily to our political moment. On page two of the novel, Daphne walks out of her job, picks up her sixteen-month-old daughter from day care, and drives away to a trailer she has inherited from her grandmother in a rural town in the extreme north of California.

Across the ten days the novel covers, Daphne cares for her child alone. She tries to sort through the crises in which she has found herself, but the needs of her daughter usually interfere. This novel vivdly depicts the relentlessness of caring for a young child, how impossible it is to accumulate mental energy to direct toward anything except the child's needs, the push and pull of resentment and devotion. It's an utter exegesis of early motherhood. Which is part of what makes this book so easy to recommend; anyone dreaming idly of parenthood, or failing to comprehend how new mothers' identities vanish into their children's needs, must only pick up The Golden State for a full accounting.
It's ... just the weight of the day, the weight of duties and time that
suggests itself periodically since I had Honey, first I will cut up the
enchilada I will be polite with this old woman with her unimaginable
bereavement I will wipe Honey's hands we will pay the bill and buy
Alice's food too I will put Honey into her stroller and we will leave
the bereaved one and walk all the way back to Deakins Park and probably
Honey should have a bath and definitely she must brush teeth even
though she hates hates hates it and then we will have milk and story
and crib and it's an hour away at least and then night and then the day
begins and we do everything over again, and somewhere in there I will
have to make decisions earn us money find my husband and at the same
time absorb that this woman's three children are all dead, and Ellery
Simpson is dead and countless children all over the world I'll never
know about are dead.


Still, there is so much more to the novel than a primer on maternal overwhelm. Until she abandons her job, Daphne is the sole competent actor in a Middle Eastern studies institute attached to a large university. A student died accidentally on a trip she helped to arrange, and the bureaucratic prevarication with which her superiors handle the incident troubles her. Meanwhile, her husband, a Turkish citizen, has been tricked into surrendering his green card to ICE agents, and is trapped in Turkey. Daphne is trapped in unaffordable San Francisco in the cycle of emptying and refilling her bank account, trading her days with her daughter for the money to pay for her daughter's care. The novel is almost a meditation on people in modern traps.

As such, it's political, but not overtly so. Daphne finds herself analyzing her knee-jerk prejudices and tamping down ever-present fury at the situations of 2018 in America. (She's also funny: "the bright lights loud voices taut arms brassy makeup are just too much and I start to feel the very specific kind of deeply down-in-the-mouth existential despair brought on by network television.") Her actions are resistance against the norm, but this is not a protest novel; the political relevance of this book is in its subtext. Daphne overturns the precarious balance of her life at a point when the balance has become intolerable to maintain, due to the outside forces working on her--San Francisco evolving into a city for the rich, ICE forcing her husband away from her, the bucket full of holes that is job + daycare. Unfortunately, she finds not peace, but more chaos: caring for her daughter instead of working is not idyllic, nor is the life she fled to in rural California.

Drowning in this conundrum, Daphne encounters an elderly woman, Alice, who is also seeking peace--but Alice is not a kindly adviser. Instead, she is grumpy and judgmental, keeping her agenda hidden until it is too late. Yet she offers Daphne respite from the demands of full-time mothering, a provision that serves as something of a microcosm for what Daphne seeks but does not find across the novel. The novel brings this grandmotherly figure into her life, but all Alice can offer is temporary relief. Daphne wants a perfect resolution for her husband's immigration problem, but it does not seem to exist. She wants to appreciate every moment with her daughter, but the nature of caring for a baby means that there are moments she will not enjoy, and she will hate herself for not enjoying them.

Readers who have some familiarity with the enormous social variation in different areas of California will find this novel plausible enough, but if you've never been far enough north on the west coast, the events which exacerbate the novel's final crisis may seem unlikely. (I know better: it's a whole other California up there, near the Oregon border.) It's a measure of Kiesling's savvy as an author that she has chosen to incorporate these events anyway. All of the risks she takes pay off in the novel's sad but satisfying conclusion: chaos and failure lead to grief without paralysis, and surrender without defeat.

Although The Golden State is a debut novel, Kiesling already has a strong reputation in the literary world. She is the editor of the Millions, and her work has appeared at the New Yorker, Slate, and the New York Times Sunday Magazine. (Disclosure: Lydia has twice edited my work at the Millions. We have no special relationship.) Perhaps that is why The Golden State takes so many interesting chances, why it feels fresh and jazzlike in its momentum and its tangents, and yet reveals itself as carefully plotted, maintaining a sophisticated control of its tone. Kiesling has been a writer for a long time, and this novel is both a wonderful, auspicious beginning, and the fulfillment of a promise her work has been making for years.

Reviewed by Katharine Coldiron

Katharine Coldiron's work has appeared in Ms., The Guardian, LARB, and the Women's Review of Books, among other venues. She lives in California and at kcoldiron.com.
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Title Annotation:Lydia Kiesfing's "The Golden State"
Author:Coldiron, Katharine
Publication:The Women's Review of Books
Article Type:Book review
Date:Nov 1, 2018
Words:1181
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