Books

The Agony of Bureaucracy

A conversation with Lydia Kiesling about The Golden State.

Lydia Kiesling and her book, The Golden State.
Lydia Kiesling, author of The Golden State.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Andria Lo.

Lydia Kiesling’s The Golden State isn’t a conventional novel, even if it kind of starts like one. A woman leaves work midshift to go on the road with her daughter for reasons that aren’t quite explained. This produces an anxious low hum in the reader—it feels like a familiar and fun form of suspense—until you realize that the book a) isn’t going to address that, at least not directly and b) is at least as interested in interrogating the human need for those kinds of pat answers. Why did this happen? and How long do we wait? are central but basically unanswerable questions that plague everyone in the novel, from the new (and liberal) mother to the secessionist kooks in Northern California she ends up encountering on her pilgrimage. I talked to Kiesling about plot, bureaucracy, and setting a literary character in an anti-literary world.

Lili Loofbourow: How were you thinking about plot while you were writing this book?

Lydia Kiesling: When I started writing, all I knew about the book was that it was about a woman with a baby in her grandparents’ mobile home in the far northeast of California. That was what felt urgent and important for me to get down on paper. As I started writing, plot hung over me as a problem that needed to be solved. I have fairly staid literary tastes and it’s always somewhat irritating to read a book that feels plotless, so it was odd to find myself writing one, and I had to think about the nips and tucks that would give shape to the thing. I love novels that are full of interiority but still have a wonderful story—The Last Samurai is a wonderful example.

I knew that we needed a “why” for Daphne. Why was she alone with the baby? And, crucially, why would she get up from her desk one day, walk out of her office, collect her child and all of their things, and head north in the Buick? I think many people will recognize the impulse, but usually there’s a lot of distance between an impulse and an action, and I needed to create those conditions for her. The ending of the book, where there is suddenly quite a bit of plot, suggested itself to me about a third of the way through. The last few years have been for me an exercise in changing my notion of what is and isn’t probable, and it just seemed like something that could happen and was a way to relieve, even in an upsetting way, the tension that is building in the novel.

The Golden State captures, like nothing I’ve read, the agony of bureaucracy: the way people are encouraged to rationalize their crummy but survivable circumstances, usually by dissolving responsibility into a system. How does the book’s treatment of bureaucracy connect to motherhood?

One of the reasons bureaucracy is so maddening is because it is silly in how opaque and arbitrary its laws are, but it can still rigidly dictate the terms of your life. It sounds pat, but it turns out that this is not unlike being with a toddler; toddlers are both absolutely irrational and silly and also completely unavoidable and inexorable and maddening.

There’s something just a little Godot-like about the novel in that the characters the protagonist longs for (and who get the most time in her head) never actually show up in-universe. It is, in many ways, a novel structured by absence. That can’t have been an easy formal experiment.

Part of creating the “why” for Daphne was thinking about the conditions that would make me, as a newish mother, head for the hills during a moment of panic and frustration. And one of the major factors was absence—of spouse, parents, friends, family members—who could relieve some of that burden of child rearing. I also know many people whose lives are intensely shaped by people aren’t there, either because they’ve moved on or died. Absent dads and husbands leave holes, and part of the book is trying to show how people—in this case, women—work around and within those holes.

The job Daphne drives away from is at a university that looks a lot like UC–Berkeley. How does your novel compare to other campus novels?

Some of my literary sensibility was for better or worse formed by novels like Lucky Jim, with a comic protagonist we are meant to see as Everyman. I’m amazed at how long it took me to realize not only that Lucky Jim is a terrible Everyman but that there’s a lot of harm written into that book—the casualties of the book (poor Margaret Peel) are presented as funny. I still love the book and have a soft spot for that campus-novel sensibility that is arch and judgmental and barbarously unempathetic, but it’s basically irreconcilable with the way women are socialized, and with the demands of motherhood. My book is in some ways the result of taking a Lucky Jim type of sensibility but putting it on a woman with a baby. Suddenly, the book is completely different. There are stakes.

Daphne’s boss at the university is a celebrity academic who wrote a famous book called Casualties of Capital. What are the casualties of capital? And why did you put that amazing and useful concept in the mouth of one of the novel’s most obnoxious characters?

The book doesn’t get in the weeds of his research, but the general idea is that capitalism is a rapacious and harmful system. Which it is! But as his catchphrase, it takes on a slightly comic tenor in the book. To me it highlighted one of the interesting paradoxes of academia—that its denizens come up with incredibly important and useful formulations for looking at life, but their personal politics and day-to-day interactions with people can leave something to be desired; their very celebrity makes the ideas look like punchlines. Just this week I read about a group of esteemed scholars signing a letter in support of a colleague who behaved inappropriately with a student, something you’d think would run counter to their politics as laid out in their groundbreaking works about gender and power and sex!

It’s a fresh and vital thing to watch a literary character stuck in an anti-literary world. Daphne is brilliant and thoughtful and curious, but her laborious hot walks with the stroller make her a kind of anti-flâneur. Honey, her daughter, must have breakfast; Honey is absorbing things in the present; for Honey, the intervening time without her dad is formative, not simply a waiting period. In what way is this mother laden with string cheese an answer to the unburdened, exploratory free agent who dominates so many books?

Motherhood is something that intensely grounds one in a particular moment, while also posing interesting questions about morality and agency and personal history—all good things for a novel! Honey is the really good thing in Daphne’s life, but also a challenging thing. To the latter point, one of the things that fascinates me about motherhood is that, at least as I experience it, you move along more or less confidently that you are doing OK and everyone is surviving, and then you bumble into a kind of bird’s-eye moment where you really have to evaluate whether or not your mothering is “good.” I wanted both Daphne and the reader to have their own bird’s-eye moments.

The Golden State by Lydia Kiesling. MCD.

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