At the start of Lydia Kiesling’s remarkable debut novel The Golden State, a young mother named Daphne impulsively leaves San Francisco with her baby for a mobile home in far Northern California. Daphne has neither friends or relations in the moribund western town of Altavista. Immigration problems have trapped Daphne’s husband in Turkey, and her ordinary day care provider is back in San Francisco. On her seventh day in Altavista, exactly two-thirds of the way through the book, Daphne takes an extraordinarily long nap. A biblical rest. This nap is both improbable and delicious. It gives the reader the erotic satisfaction one sometimes feels when two lonely characters, skillfully kept apart for 200 pages, finally make out.
That six-hour nap is the only time in The Golden State when Honey, the baby, is not under Daphne’s watch. This means that the bulk of the novel is an accounting of all Daphne does to care for 16-month-old Honey, along with her concurrent thoughts and anxieties. She walks the wide streets of Altavista, chats with locals, attends a church service, and eats at all of the crappy restaurants in town. As in life, her baby is always present and always needy. While babies can be boring, the book never is. I found it thrilling, actually, to increasingly feel the burden of Honey. I began to dread her cries. I snapped at my own kids when they interrupted my reading because I wanted Honey to fall asleep and allow Daphne to read. But even as I delighted at the way Kiesling built suspense out of early motherhood, I became angry that I hadn’t encountered this in literature before.
Like all obsessive childhood readers, I’ve rarely experienced any life event that I hadn’t already read about in novels. My first period, first friendship dissolution, first incident of anti-Semitism, even my first (and presumably final) wedding: My life’s milestones have always been accompanied by the déjà vu of barely remembered scenes. Then I had a baby. Daily existence became so unfamiliar that it was as if I’d found myself in a foreign land, except I’d read all about women traveling in foreign lands, but I hadn’t read about this.
In most novels, if babies insist upon being born, their mothers politely carry them offstage or they miraculously morph into school-age children in a few pages, the slog of the early years forgotten. Baby care is as anathema to adult literature as parents are to children’s literature; drama, it seems, belongs to the childless and the orphans.
But why is this? Setting aside the basic facts of misogyny and an economic system that makes it difficult for mothers to write their own stories, we can look to the lessons of creative writing programs. Rule No. 1: A character must want something. Maternal longings are often too complicated and contradictory to provide a tidy narrative (if tidy narrative is what you’re after). As Kiesling shows, the relentlessness of baby care torques and twists mothers until they are unable to navigate by desire—especially in a country that doesn’t provide parental leave or childcare for its youngest citizens. Daphne, who hasn’t “spiritually recovered” from going back to work when her baby was 10 weeks old, wants her baby beyond measure, and she wants a break from her baby beyond measure. She misses her husband, who was sent back to Turkey eight months ago, but she doesn’t want to Skype with her husband. She drives eight hours to smell the fescue in Altavista, but once she arrives she wonders if she really just wanted to take Honey to a playground for the afternoon. Other than a nap, there are few things Daphne wants unconditionally.
Kiesling creates drama out of the muddle of maternal desire through run-on sentences that list the minutia of caregiving and then open up into wide vistas of observation or revelation:
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 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.
As I bounced along on such sentences, I thought, a little tearfully, about commas. I do love commas. But commas divide meals into bites and hours into minutes, while baby care is a commaless stream of diapers jammies milk story teeth bed. While Daphne tends to Honey, she’s preoccupied by her bank account balance, Turkish grammar, the Islamophobia of the immigration system, the demographic and economic changes in the rural West that have fostered a secessionist movement, and when she can smoke her next cigarette. What Kiesling syntactically accomplishes is an exquisite look at the gulf between the narrow repetitive toil of motherhood and the sprawling intelligence of the mother that makes baby care so maddening.
Babies are endless obligation, but then again so is much of life. Back in San Francisco, in addition to spending her days checking on the “bureaucratic web of the evil empire” that keeps her husband from his green card, Daphne works as an administrator at the Institute for the Study of Islamic Societies and Civilizations. The description of institutional redundancies and hierarchies at the unnamed university that resembles UC–Berkeley is one of the gems of the book. “The more education you have the more removed you are from the ineluctable yawning core of work at the University, which is not in fact teaching but is the filling out and submission and resubmission of forms, the creation of scheduling Doodles, the tallying of receipts and the phoning of caterers, the issuing of letters and the ordering of supplies and the tallying of data points in poorly formatted spreadsheets.” These are the tasks that Daphne abruptly abandons when she high-tails it to Altavista.
The Golden State is ultimately about the dream of escaping the dehumanization of logistics. Taken to its most dystopian and xenophobic extreme, it’s the same dream held by Daphne’s radical neighbors in Altavista, who are fighting to secede from California. They become increasingly threatening toward the end of the book when they barricade a road Daphne needs to use. But they, too, simply want to be free of the “bureaucratic web.” They want to slough off state governance and federal management of public lands (despite their county’s dependence upon oodles of government aid) and “form a new state where there are no rules of any kind.” In short, they want a break.
Which brings us back to the nap. Daphne’s six hours are enabled by Alice, an elderly woman she meets while Skyping with her husband at the only café with Wi-Fi in Altavista. Alice, who’s a fantastic character—caustic, unsentimental, and with an unambiguous goal that sets her in contrast to Daphne—is at the end of her life, the terminus of obligation. She’s free of logistics. The respite from the bureaucracy of motherhood she gives Daphne acts as a metonymy for the book’s larger yearning for release from endless lists of tasks. Can’t we all find our Alice and go to sleep?
Well, no. By telling the story of a new mother, someone who might surmount the odds and take a nap but will never achieve a year of rest and relaxation, The Golden State reveals the limitations of the dream of an end to responsibilities. We may all be Bartlebys, preferring not to, but we’re stuck here, caught in the sluggish machinery of late capitalism and its “godawful bureaucratic clusterfuck.” This is our short time in history. We won’t know another life. We don’t get to enter a golden state without conflict or boredom. But love can persist despite crappy Skype connections, and wonder can flourish in the interstices between tasks. Mothers of babies, who have forever navigated the interplay between burden and desire, could have shown us this a long time ago if they were invited into literature. At least Daphne’s here now, buckling Honey into her stroller and leading the way.
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The Golden State by Lydia Kiesling. MCD.