The Golden State
Lydia Kiesling’s debut novel The Golden State opens with abandonment. That is, the protagonist Daphne walks away from the job where she is over-qualified, underpaid, and overworked. She does so with a slim glimmer of regret or, rather, a slight disquiet as she packs up daughter and leaves San Francisco behind. But where does someone at our continent’s end go? The American Dream is one squarely situated gazing westward, so when that’s left, what are the options?
Thus, The Golden State is a novel of seeking out place, a home. We travel into northern California to the fictional town of Altavista where more than a few ultraconservative and libertarian residents dream of their own state called Jefferson. Here in her mother’s hometown in an inherited trailer, Daphne comes to rest:
It’s very, very quiet and I wonder what we are going to do next. Then I consider what Honey has eaten today and I get up and make for the pantry and there are cans of baked beans and peas and I bustle around the kitchen and get them into a little saucepan and I survey the house. My house. My house. ‘This is my house,’ I say aloud, and everything in the house contradicts me, down to its dubious foundation. ‘You’re a visitor,’ the house seems to say. But it still welcomes me, even if we have mutually rejected the existence of an owner-owned relationship between us. We are safe in the house, I feel.
What follows is a narrative of ten days wherein Daphne attempts to articulate her experience of absence without loss, her resentments towards cruel faceless systems as well as very real and very present persons who allow their own disenfranchisement to engulf them. It is a story at once visceral and banal making it addictive and compelling.
Kiesling explores the “day-to-day experience of parenthood” coupling it with a broken immigration policy directly responsible for Daphne’s sundered family. Her husband, Engin, exists throughout the novel as a spectre because to US Immigration failures have denied reentry to the country due to a clerical error. He is present in Daphne’s mental calculus, but due to Altavista’s rural resources or lack thereof, he’s a glitch via Skype of pixels rarely holding themselves together long enough to be real. Here we see how this absence although not quite loss centers much of Daphne’s dilemma around the reality of being an only parent.
While Engin is a sort of digital phantom being exorcised or warded off by bureaucracy, Honey is ever present but inarticulate. In fact, a “six-hour nap is the only time in The Golden State when Honey, the baby, is not under Daphne’s watch” meaning Daphne is regularly shifting from internal monologue to a one-sided dialogue speaking to her infant daughter as though the child could have some sort of input or rebuttal. It’s a deft narrative move allowing readers to realize Daphne must always be ‘on’ and the effect is enervating causing both Daphne and readers to feel physically and emotionally bone weary.
With The Golden State, Kiesling has written a brilliant domestic novel. It is domestic in nearly every way you could imagine–revising our shared belief in the banalities of parenting, the establishment, rejection, and embrace of a home, confronting festering insecurity both private and public, and the quest to tame what is wild. With a deep and vivid grip on her characters, Kiesling’s prose moves with reassurance even as she presents us with deeply discouraged persons and places. Meanwhile, her topic taps into both subjective and national existential anxiety all while doing so in the most ordinary, accessible, and resonant way possible. The Golden State is superb literary fiction.
About the Author
Lydia Kiesling is the editor of The Millions. Her debut novel, The Golden State, was longlisted for the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize. Her essays and criticism have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Guardian, Slate, and The New Yorker online, and have been recognized in The Best American Essays 2016. Kiesling lives in San Francisco with her family.