Lydia Kiesling, The Golden State, MCD, 2018, $26.
In 2016, Lydia Kiesling published an essay in the New Yorker in which she wrote, “Bureaucratic experiences are like dreams: profoundly affecting, but very boring to hear about.” Two years later, Kiesling published The Golden State, a novel in which she emphatically proves herself wrong.
The Golden State’s story is set in motion when Daphne Nilson—an American woman whose Turkish husband, Engin, is stuck in his home country because of a “click of the mouse” error—flees her administrative job in San Francisco, whisking her baby, Honey, away on a ten-day trip to her late parents’ home in Altavista, a fictional town in Northern California. But of course Daphne, who is aware of the mythic implications of her name, cannot outrun her anxiety. Even in sleepy Altavista, she struggles with the same problems that overwhelmed her at home: dirty diapers, Skype calls with an exiled husband, emails from a demanding boss. In addition, she becomes embroiled in the personal dramas of her new neighbor, Cindy, and a stranger named Alice.
The Golden State is a “click of the mouse” novel: a white-collar mouse-clicker’s bureaucratic suffering because of an impersonal error. But, by getting Daphne on the road, Kiesling creates a dream we want to hear about. As Daphne and Honey cross the “vast territory” between San Francisco and Altavista, the anxiety, frustration, and claustrophobia induced by Daphne’s constant concern with the “submission and resubmission of forms” comes into balance with the romantic promise of possibility, coincidence, and human connection. Of course, this promise remains largely unfulfilled. Indeed, a good deal of Daphne’s trip—narrated in the breathless style of a natural-born neurotic whose anxiety is amplified by her maternal duties—becomes about how many string cheeses are acceptable to feed one’s daughter in a single day. But Daphne does form a coincidental bond with the stranger, Alice, an elderly woman who happens to be passing through Altavista and who, like Daphne, speaks some Turkish. Hoping to fortify this bond, Daphne volunteers to drive Alice to Oregon on a nostalgic pilgrimage to a military camp where Alice’s ex-husband was stationed. In the end, Daphne is moved to send a final text message to her husband, in which we learn that she is going on the run once again, this time not away from anything but toward what she really loves: “My love,” she writes, “we are coming to you.”
On a larger, narrative level, Kiesling deserves praise for deftly balancing the outsized drama of a husband and wife separated by an ocean with the tedia of bureaucracy. But Kiesling’s real talent lies in how she balances Daphne’s inner life: her fears and desires, her loves and frustrations. On the fifth day of her stay in Altavista, when Daphne wakes up to Honey smothering her with kisses, she feels “the greatest sense of well-being available for love or money” and thinks “Thank you God or whoever for this moment.” If you read this section alone, you could be forgiven for thinking the book’s treatment of motherhood unduly sentimental; but, by the end of the same day, Daphne finds herself fantasizing compulsively about all the tragic ways her daughter might die, and the chapter ends with the gut-thumping line: “Why did I have a child? To have a child is to court loss.” In Daphne, Kiesling has created a character who is wincingly real, one whose most powerful loves are bound up with petty annoyances and intense fears, one rife with wild ambivalences that somehow come into balance to form a person.
The Golden State is full of funny, poignant, and vivid passages about the eternal duties of motherhood, as well as politically relevant discussions of modern America’s particular brand of Islamophobia. But, at its core, Kiesling’s novel is about the wholehearted, even desperate pursuit of a feeling that gets more elusive with each passing year in this, the era of Moore’s law—the one you get when you stop being a brain sending electrical signals as a part of some vast, impersonal network and allow yourself, if only temporarily, to become a “whole-body” creature, alive with all the complex things we feel for the ones we love.