The Joypain of Parenting: Lydia Kiesling’s The Golden State
The Golden State is a novel so dialed into its own rhetorical structure and method of execution, so confident in its delivery, that anyone who is writing fiction today would do well to study its pacing, prose, and the way Kiesling gives no quarter to Daphne Nilsen’s sense of psychic safety—the sign of a writer willing to go well beyond the threshold needed to create moving and vulnerable fiction. As readers, we’re locked inside of Daphne’s consciousness, with her as her thoughts cycle through panic, worry, despair, occasional nihilism and, over and over again, the frantic mental state of single parenthood.
The plot is a dramatic picaresque. Daphne Nilsen spontaneously decides to take leave of her academic staff position at the Institute for the Study of Islamic Societies and Civilizations at a university one assumes is Stanford or Berkeley. She is married to Engin Mehmetoğlu, a Turkish national and an academic who was deceived into giving up his green card when he left the country for a trip to Turkey and then found himself unable to return home. This bald injustice, this trickery, burns through Daphne’s narration for the whole book. Engin is now stranded in Istanbul, and Daphne is alone in San Francisco with their daughter, Honey. (Honey’s real name is Meltem, and since Daphne grew up for a minute in Greece with her foreign service parents, the name sounds like melissa, which is “honey” in Greek—so through a trilingual metalepsis, the baby gets her perfectly sweet name.) Daphne packs her aged Buick and decamps to the North State (a colloquial term for the far northern part of California), to the fictional town of Altavista in Paiute County to stay in her deceased grandmother’s trailer, which is now her trailer, her home. Daphne is, practically, alone. And Altavista is like Walmart meets Cormac McCarthy:
I am staring out the window of my office and thinking about death when I remember the way Paiute smells in the early morning in the summer before the sun burns the dew off the fescue. Through the wall I hear the muffled voice of Meredith shouting on the phone in laborious Arabic with one of her friend-colleagues, and in my mind’s eye I see the house sitting empty up there… Technically it is a double-wide mobile home, although it does not look mobile…
Kiesling is from the particular part of California the novel is set in, or is so familiar with it that it feels like home. The reader is handed details of the North State with an acute authority, in the descriptions of small town politics, the local restaurants, the difficulty of walking rural landscapes or small towns with a child in tow, and the subsuming weight of spiraling grief.
While there she pushes through agonizing Skype calls on bad WiFi with Engin and tries to meet basic human communication needs with her closest neighbor, Cindy, a separatist nut. But the core of the book is her slow-rolling, slow-growing friendship with a “crone” named Alice whom she meets at a diner. It is when they start to spend more time together that the book accelerates into something more harried and urgent. But up to that late point, I was happy to—or, more accurately, sympathetically distraught to—follow Daphne as she escapes the bullshit of academic paperwork and petty power-brokering by hitting up the local steak joint and sneaking cigarettes behind her baby’s back.
Kiesling has said in interviews that she wanted to write a novel about bureaucracy. This book takes that on in two ways: with Engin, sitting and waiting for the proper paperwork/interview/next step from the US government, and in the small descriptions of Daphne’s work life. The former is daunting for its rubber-stamp slowness and Stephen Millerian-Trumpian racism, while the latter is aggravating for its absolute low-stakes drama. Kiesling puts Daphne’s worries this way:
We at the Institute are nesting dolls: Karen the admin assistant who has no MA, then me who has an MA but dropped out of the PhD, then Meredith with her PhD, with Hugo encircling us all. Meredith is sensitive to slights from Hugo; I am sensitive to slights from Meredith and Hugo; Karen is sensitive to slights from everyone. The hierarchy is all we have. We are all publicly rather flirtatious with Hugo, privately disdainful, and occasionally afraid. I have spent so much time with these people that I can’t tell whether I hate them or whether I can’t live without them.
As a college teacher, I have been subjected to this beige administration for over a decade, and I nod sympathetically at this Dante-esque taxonomy of trickle-down emotional dodgeball. You’re always carrying water for someone else who can’t or won’t do their own work. Which means, often, that someone else somewhere is likely doing the same for you. It is an officious horror show.
In Jane Alison’s Meander, Spiral, Explode: Design and Pattern in Narrative, she writes that a “spiraling narrative could be a helix winding downward… or it might wind upward, around and around to a future.” Spirals are the core of this book, and they also happen to be how bureaucracies, formal and informal, operate. Helices of paperwork, emails, and Zoom meetings. The never-ending carousel of questions and replies. Parenting might not be a bureaucracy, but it is a spiral, a different kind of never-ending carousel of questions and replies. It’s the same actions repeated day after day, often to numbing effect.
One of the set pieces in the book are the Skype calls with Engin. It’s amazing how important he is to the plot, considering we only really see him and hear him through these brief snippets. What’s wonderful about these calls is how Kiesling imbues Engin’s character with depth through a few restrained phrases and questions:
“Tell her to bring my granddaughter and come here,” his mother hollers from the kitchen. Engin smiles wanly and shrugs and says “You know you can come here” and I say “Do you want me to come there” and he says “Well you were staying there because you have a good job but if you are not going to work then I don’t understand why you wouldn’t come here” and I realize this probably cost him something to say because he thinks Hugo and Meredith are grifters but he knows also that work is important and that his work is feast or famine and not ideal for the maintenance of a family unit and then he says “As far as I know we hadn’t planned for you to live… there,” and he gestures at Sal’s behind me and I nod. “I know,” I say. “I thought maybe I’d go through some of my mom’s stuff in the garage to see what I can sell.” “By yourself?” and that leads us back to the fucking green card and I say “I’ll leave the heavy stuff for when you come” and then I just feel so done and tired of talking I take two deep breaths and say “Honey has to have her nap” and “Really I’m fine, just feeling down” (Moralim bozuk, my morale is spoilt) and “I’ll go back to work, I promise” and “Give your mother a kiss from me” and to Honey I say “Say bye-bye to your baba, give your baba a kiss,” and she finally brings the palm of her hand to her mouth and lowers it toward the screen extravagantly open and proud of herself and I blow a kiss too and shut the laptop more abruptly than I intend.
A few things about this excerpt:
- I love the way the dialogue shuttles back and forth with little fuss. Often, the dialogue in The Golden State acts as a way for characters to unintentionally barter with each other. Here, Engin is making equivocal statements about their plans, and yet the unintended effect of these statements is to raise Daphne’s defenses about her decisions. Since the reader is literally on Daphne’s side of the conversation, we both understand her dilemma in a way Engin doesn’t and question her impulsive decision to leave work and burn through money. We ourselves feel her constant equivocation.
- The injection of Turkish into the prose. A great and constant reminder of the language barrier/bridge that the characters inhabit. Daphne is continually veering between languages—everything is held up against the potential Turkish in it or around it. Does she keeping pursuing Turkish? Should she up and move to Turkey to be with Engin?
- Everything is contained in one paragraph. There’s a level of confidence on display when an author can balance four characters and the direction of intention, speech, and action without having to turn to indentation as an indication of who’s saying what. This happens again and again throughout the novel. The cast of characters is so various and moves so quickly through the scenes, with many different interlocutors speaking in single paragraphs, that it creates a swirling carnival kind of effect.
But, again and again, the novel circles back to Daphne’s push-pull relationship with her daughter, Honey. Her joy is the young girl, and yet she’s also so clearly the source of pain. I have two young boys, a toddler and an infant. I am well-versed in the meandering, sweet pain that is parenthood, though that type of joypain is different for a mother, of course. Daphne has an endless supply of cheese sticks for her daughter in crisis moments, and more than enough self-hatred for constantly offering these cheese sticks. Daphne must keep her daughter fed, clean, and entertained—to say nothing of herself—and keep up the appearance of solid, respectable motherhood to the outside world. Daphne (and Kiesling) knows how much of a double standard this is, and yet she still works hard to appear a good mother to the wider world. Every time Daphne is able to set Honey down for a nap or turn away for one moment, we luxuriate in her small pleasures: a local newspaper, a cigarette, or a hot shower. We also think: she only left one job; the other one doesn’t leave. The book’s most humane moments come, for instance, when Daphne is able to plan ahead for a few meals, which registers as a great victory. This is the reality of parenthood.
Anyone who has ever put a one-year-old down for a nap or nighttime will identify with how funny the book is, and also how parents overestimate their goodwill. Here, in another long clip, we see just how quickly a parent’s love can backfire. The lack of standard punctuation here hurtles the reader forward into a form of hyper-asyndeton, something along the lines of Gertrude Stein—the breathless yet indefatigable tone of a mother.
I have one more cigarette brush my teeth look in at Honey played out in her Pack ’n Play in the dark closet and stroke her head and cover her with the blanket and climb into bed. Then I think of all this big expanse of bed and Honey cooped up in the closet alone and get back out and gently lift her out and carry her over and put her next to me which I’ve always wanted to do but have not done because of all the things you read about sleep habits and people who sleep with their children until they are five. I’ve never had her in bed with me through the night, just mornings during the early weeks months when she hardly moved at all. Now I put my arm under her rear and sort of encircle her with my mouth against her fuzz. But she sense the change and squirms and wakes up and looks at me and smiles and starts fidgeting and says “da da daaaaah” with curiosity and I feel her little hands on my face and I say “shhhh sleeping” but when I open my eyes I can see the whites of her eyes in the darkness gazing at me like an inquisitive turtle and she kicks her feet and squirms toward the edge of the bed and I can’t get her to lie down and I know I’ve made a mistake and carry her back to the Pack ’n Play and she cries.
This is both the exercise and exorcism of motherhood.
But it’s also Daphne’s cockeyed optimism that leads her up to Altavista in the first place, and forces her to keep trying to interact with the older woman at the diner, Alice, who seems to harbor an indistinct sadness. Daphne wants to intervene—everything in her life might be stagnant and stuck, but she’s going to pry this woman’s life free. So much of the book is taken up with Daphne’s bearing water for those alive and dead that, in the end, when she finally divests herself of the unnecessary load, we can only hope that the next stage of her journey is more comfortable and compassionate than what we’ve experienced with her.