The Golden State

The Golden State

by Lydia Kiesling

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374718060
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 09/04/2018
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 40,577
File size: 3 MB

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.
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.

Read an Excerpt


DAY 1 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, a homely beige rectangle with a brown latticed deck and a tidy green wraparound lawn to its left, a free-standing garage to its right, and beyond that an empty lot with juniper shrubs and patches of tall grass where the deer like to pick. Technically it is a double-wide mobile home, although it does not look mobile — it's not on wheels or blocks; it has a proper covered foundation, or at least the appearance of one, and could not be mistaken for a trailer. Technically I own this house, because my grandparents left it to my mother and when she died she left it to me.

The house is waiting for an occupant; my uncle Rodney, who didn't need it and thus didn't inherit it, has been paying someone to come every month to tend the geraniums and cut the grass for the last five years. He pays for a low, persistent hum of electricity and gas through the winter so as to avoid the effects of a hard freeze. The idea is that someone will one day want to buy this house, and my uncle Rodney is keeping it nice until then, I suppose as a favor to me.

I hear Meredith send valedictory kisses through the phone and amid the sparkling glass and chrome splendor of the Institute I see the faux-wood paneling of the house and the nubbled brown upholstery of my grandmother's two soft couches, still in situ with the rest of her furnishings. And then I feel something tugging — first from across the Bay, the dingy living room where Honey and six other babies spend ten hours a day toddling, then from the long stretch of road, nearly four hundred miles of road, leading up to the high desert. And then I stand up from my office chair and open the right-hand desk drawer and put a Post-it on the petty cash box noting my outstanding debt of $64.72 to the petty cash fund, and after a moment's hesitation I put the Dell laptop and charger paid for with endowment income from the Al-Ihsan Foundation into my bag. And then I turn off my monitor, slip on my ill-fitting flats, call goodbye to Meredith ("Have a good night," she calls back, at 10:00 a.m.), and walk out of the building and down the main walkway through campus, the Bay before me and the clock tower at my back.

On BART I stare out the window and consider why it is that I am homebound at 10:15 in the morning with my eye to the northeast. The morning was not worse than most mornings. The alarm went off at six and I hit snooze six times at 6:10 6:19 6:28 6:37 6:46. Honey called from her crib like a marooned sailor and I guiltily left her there to take a shower after calculating the number of days without, four, too many. Then half-dressed and still dripping I pulled her wailing from the crib and wiped her tears changed her diaper replaced her jammies gave her kisses carried her to the kitchen. I put her in the high chair and gave her a fistful of raisins and realized there were no eggs or yogurt or fruit, which meant oatmeal, which takes an additional eight minutes by the most optimistic estimate, and so because of my own late start and the absence of the eggs I had to rush her through breakfast, and lately she hates to be rushed, hates to have things cleared away before she is ready, so when I took the oatmeal away she started wailing and when I carried her into our room she screamed and stiffened and threw her body back against my arms, a great dramatic backward swan dive with no regard for whatever might lie behind. And when I hustled her onto the floor to get dressed and held up the onesie and tried to invest her in the process like they say you should she started shrieking and thrashing anew and it felt very distressing, very critical, very personal, and I gripped her arms tightly, too tightly, arriving at a threshold of tightness that felt dangerous but obscurely good in a way I wouldn't care to investigate further. And then I tugged the onesie over her head looked at the time put my own head in my hands and sobbed for thirty seconds.

Engin's primary criticism of me is that whenever he tries to initiate a serious conversation I start crying, which activates his innate gallantry and sympathy, and which effectively halts whatever potentially challenging conversation we are having. He calls it a taktik; I call it a refleks. "What do you do when they criticize you at work?" he asked me once, and I told him, truthfully, that at work I am perfect. Whatever the thing is, my taktik or refleks, it worked on Honey, because she paused and I seized the moment to stuff all her limbs into the onesie the pants the socks. Then I put her down and got dressed while she rampaged cutely around the bedroom and messed with the doodads on my bedside table, evil eyes and icons and various other apotropaics I keep meaning to hang up on the wall. And then I dutifully put the little rice-size grain of toothpaste on the little toothbrush festooned with Elmo and friends and sang the song from the Elmo video, but she clamped her mouth shut tight and pearly tears squeezed from her eyes and I gave up which I do four times out of ten.

But all this was par for the course. In fact it was a small miracle that we were out the door at 7:55 for a nearly on-time daycare arrival of 8:05. Then to the streetcar, then to the train, there to zone out with the Turkish work of midcentury social realist fiction I've been trying to read for three years, then switch trains, then to the planter boxes of a Wells Fargo to smoke a cigarette, then up the hill to arrive at work at 9:35 which is a little over one hour later than I am supposed to be there according to the terms of my offer letter. But I'm still the first in the office, and if I bring Honey to daycare at 8:00, the earliest they accept kids, I can't get to work any earlier than 9:30, even if I don't smoke a cigarette — it is physically impossible.

In the office things had proceeded more or less as usual. I visited the Visa Status Check page of the National Visa Center website to see the status of Engin's green card, which was, is, in perpetuity, "At NVC," which means nothing except that not a single thing that needs to happen has happened. I checked the bank balance, $341 checking; $1,847 emergency. This had five months ago been a plump and hopeful $4,147 until the forced abandonment of Engin's green card and immediate forced return of Engin to Turkey at our expense, and the subsequent retention of an attorney to reapply, and the new application fee, and the recent additional lawyer's fee to understand why it has been At NVC for five months with no perceptible forward movement — which is, we have lately been told, a probable "click-of-the-mouse error." I paused to silently pray that whatever future emergencies might arise can be resolved for under $1,847. I checked the credit card balance, $835 less $483 in pending reimbursements for Miscellaneous Catering Expenses. I checked the University Purchasing Portal to see the status of my pending reimbursements, and verily they were still pending. I checked my retirement balance, $9,321, which was theoretically comforting although I cannot of course access it without penalty for twenty-seven years. I checked an immigration thread on BabyCenter, very short, and a Subreddit, very sad. I looked at a WeChat picture from daycare showing Honey's diaper and a troublingly small turd. I checked WhatsApp for Engin's last greeting and sent him the picture of the turd. And finally I listened to a voice mail from the Office of Risk Management relaying that I would have to make a statement regarding the death of student Ellery Simpson and injuries sustained by student Maryam Khoury in a taxi outside the Fidanlik Park refugee camp on a research trip supported with funds from the Al-Ihsan Foundation and partially arranged for by me. And then I looked out the window and thought of death and remembered the smell of the Paiute air and the dew on the fescue grass.

* * *

I reach my stop and take the streetcar to my block and stop to smoke a cigarette in front of the door of our building, staring at a free newspaper in a waterlogged bag on the pavement and picturing the long road up to the house. It's been a year since I made the drive, the miles of sprawl, then the huge swath of territory punctuated by alkali lakes and picturesque homesteads and tree stands, then the stretch of increasingly far-apart tiny townships and ruined general stores and abandoned trailers, the place where you think you've absorbed the beauty and caution of the territory and it must be time to get where you're going but you've still got eighty miles of rattlesnake plain left to go. I imagine the swift elevation up from the plain through sugar pine and juniper and more pine and the sudden descent onto another great basin, this one checkmarked with fields and cattle and pieces of wetland, its silvery grass and wet places shimmering pink in the twilight, a cattleman's paradise five thousand feet high. And then my own abandoned homestead in Deakins Park, to sink into those soft nubbled couches and take in the cool morning air of Altavista, the seat of Paiute County.

I put out the cigarette in a flowerpot and go inside and pull out a tote bag and a suitcase, and all of the focus that has lately abandoned me at work materializes and I run through the checklist: clothes diapers Pack 'n Play baby bedding sound machine high chair Ergo stroller toys books bib sippy cup snacks and, in a flash of motherly inspiration, socket protectors. There are thirty-some Costco string cheeses in the fridge and several bags of shriveled horrible natural apricots in the cupboard. I put on jeans and I stuff my jammies a housedress a few of Engin's T-shirts and my sweatshirt that says "I Climbed the Great Wall" into the suitcase. There is no Business Casual in the high desert and none of my nice things fit in any case. I put everything in the trunk of the car in two trips and then I pause before locking the door and run back in to get our passports because you never know. Then I stand on our dingy wall- to-wall carpet thinking now is a moment to reverse course and drive south to the airport and find the soonest flight to Istanbul and get us one ticket since Honey is still free and then I recall I have this thought every single day like a goldfish and every time it ends back at the $1,847 in emergency.

My mother-in-law is not rich but she is not poor and I suspect she would happily buy the plane ticket to get her hands on her granddaughter so I suppose it's not only the $1,847 that keeps me from this course. The other thing is that I have this objectively marvelous job, a world-historically good job, a job at one of the best universities in the country or the world, a job wherein I got to make up my own nonsense title which is Director of Engagement and for which I make $69,500 a year all by myself, an extremely arbitrary figure which is somehow not enough to live on here but well above the national median household income and with which I pay our rent our daycare and our food and appreciate but do not rely upon the sporadic lump sums from Engin's video gigs. "Always have a job," my mother told me when I was eleven, and again when I was seventeen, and then again, when I was twenty-three, right before she died, when we sat together at her dining room table going over the papers that would give me the mobile home and all of her own furniture and household effects. "Don't ever live on someone else," she said to me over her glasses, her dainty head wrapped in a silk scarf I remember for no reason that my dad bought her at the Alhambra gift shop in the dead of a cold Spanish winter.

So I suppose it is the $1,847 that keeps me here, but it is also my glass- walled office, my gold-plated health care, our below-market rent in a top-five American city. And there's Honey, born here. If we leave I am pretty sure we are never coming back, and she's a California baby now and if we leave she won't be ever again. So I abandon Istanbul with a pang as I do every time I think to take flight, and I smoke another cigarette against the hours in the car to come. Then I walk the two blocks to daycare to collect Honey, who gives me a radiant smile when she is brought to the door, which I accept as confirmation of the rightness of my actions thus far.

* * *

There are two ways you can drive up to Paiute County from San Francisco. You can take I-5 which runs up through the central agricultural flatlands, or you can head way east up the mountains that encircle Lake Tahoe, all the way to Reno and then north from there up the endless state roads. Mom always went up the mountain and down the valley so I decide that's what we'll do too.

Honey is happy enough when I put her in the car seat even though I do so with hideous pangs because she should be facing backward but faces forward. I switched it when her unusually long baby legs started to seem cramped and then read she should stay facing backward for many more months but couldn't get it tight enough by myself when I tried to turn it back around. The idea of calling the fire department or one of the daycare parents to do it for me is so humiliating that for now I've abandoned her to her fate in a front-facing car seat which I secretly prefer anyway because now I can see her and at red lights I can reach back and squeeze her feet. I give her a string cheese but I panic at the first stoplight remembering that it's a choking hazard in a moving car and first I scrabble my hand back ineffectually and then I pull over before the entrance to the highway so that she can eat the string cheese under supervision, but I have ruined it, and she throws the cheese and cries, and she cries all the way over the bridge and into the customary gridlock by the IKEA, the clogged highway branching off into miles of parking. I smell the foul bay-mud around the base of the bridge, and look across the water to Angel Island and the container ships making their placid hulking way through the Golden Gate and I say "look look look Honey, big boats, BIG BOATS" but she is still crying forty minutes after we've left the house and she is still crying forty minutes after that.

The Buick is a beautiful heavy boat built for long voyages, with soft taupe upholstery and a bench seat in the front with seat belts for three across. It is a 1997 LeSabre that I inherited from my grandparents before I inherited their house, and it is now pointing toward its place of origin like a giant beige homing pigeon. I wish I could put Honey up here next to me but that would obviously be a thousand times worse safety-wise than having her facing forward in the back. When Engin and I made this drive the first time, he drove the complicated part to get over the bridge and onto the open road and I sat in the middle seat nestled against him, pointing things out as we passed Berkeley passed El Cerrito passed Richmond until we were well into the golden hills scarred with cheap motels and roadside churches and housing developments. I showed him my favorite lone farmstead past Hercules, an 1800s beauty hunkering down amid a stand of poplars, beyond it rolling hills dotted with cows. It must have been one of the loveliest pieces of land on God's earth and now it looks out at a highway lined with trash.

If Engin and I can be said to have anything in common, anything that forms the basis of a solid lifelong marital foundation that is, it's a shared aesthetic, so that the landscape of California moves and offends us in equal parts. Thus he admired my farmhouse and the hills of the coast range, yellow as they were, and lamented with me the cheap hideous housing tracts around Vallejo Fairfield Vacaville, and then the god-awful Nut Tree, a township comprised entirely of big-box commercial establishments, mattress stores and Starbucks and fast casual dining a stone's throw from endless choking traffic, the smell of exhaust faintly perceptible even in the padded coffin of the Buick.


Excerpted from "The Golden State"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Lydia Kiesling.
Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
Begin Reading,
A Note About the Author,

Reading Group Guide

1. What makes Engin and Daphne a good match? What attracted them to each other, and to each other’s worlds? How does their love evolve over the course of The Golden State?

2. Daphne describes pumping milk at work, in a basement closet that houses computer servers. What does this image say about modern American motherhood?

3. As Daphne counts the dollars in her bank account and the minutes of her commute, what is she really measuring? When she returns to her grandparents’ house, how is she affected by the new daily rhythm of sleeping and feeding and playing?

4. How would you have reacted in Daphne’s situation after Engin was illegally pressured to relinquish his green card? If you could rewrite America’s immigration laws, what would you decree?

5. What viewpoints do Daphne and Cindy share? What lies at the heart of Cindy’s paranoia? Why is it difficult for her and the State of Jefferson followers to stay rooted in reality?

6. As Alice’s friendship with Daphne unfolds, what forms of caretaking do they provide to each other? If you had the chance to reconnect with a chapter from your past, what special place would you want to return to?

7. The author delivers a highly realistic depiction of workplace bureaucracy. How do Daphne’s co-workers compare to yours? How long could you be gone from the office before anyone would know you were missing?

8. Daphne recalls the tidy world that her grandparents inhabited, down to her grandmother’s immaculate golfing outfit, and the thriving small-town community where they were well-known. What caused the decline of Paiute County?

9. None of the staff at the Institute for the Study of Islamic Societies and Civilizations is a Muslim. What commentary does the novel offer on the limitations of institutions—and the power of individuals—to heal society’s fractures?

10. As Daphne comes to terms with the accident that took the life of a student (Ellery Simpson) and injured another (Maryam Khoury), what does she discover about the risks and rewards of her own cross-cultural journeys?

11. What does the novel tell us about the ability of language to connect us, even when language appears to be a barrier?

12. How did Engin and his mother change your perspective on what it means to lead a fulfilling life?

13. What do you predict for Honey’s generation? Are you optimistic that cultural differences will be widely respected and celebrated in the future, in America and abroad?

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