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An Apocalyptic Romp Through The ‘Golden’ State

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
August 6, 2012

Gabrielle Zevin’s latest book is All These Things I’ve Done.

Forgive me, Facebook! I do not always want to tell people what I like. This flaw in my character puts me at odds with much of modern life, which is, of course, organized around a relentless cycle of recommendation.

I’ve always been this way. When I love a new band, I selfishly dread the moment they’ll hit Saturday Night Live. When I love a book, particularly a quirky one, I have been known to avoid reviews and especially the comments beneath reviews. Sometimes, I just don’t want to know when people dislike what I adore. But make no mistake: I do adore Carolyn See’s Golden Days, a slim, messy, sexy, funny, ridiculously ambitious, probably easy-to-tear-apart novel about the end (or the beginning?) of the world.

Originally published in 1987, the setting is California, mostly in the 1980s, but with occasional dips into the surrounding decades. We meet our narrator, Edith Langley, as a “chunky” teen in a modest 1950s Los Angeles neighborhood. By novel’s end, she is a nuclear blast survivor in a heartbreaking, though hopeful, depiction of post-apocalyptic Malibu. In between, Edith is a discontented Betty Draper type, a New Age devotee, an adulterer, a banker, a single mother, a student, a teacher, a writer and a precious gem expert — in other words, your typical Californian everywoman who “[makes herself] up half hour by hour.”

Golden Days shifts genres as easily as Edith does identities. I read the novel as a college sophomore, and its formal fluidity was a revelation to me. A novel could start out contemporary realism and end up speculative fiction? Of course it could! Life, after all, is not necessarily confined to one genre. You’re born and you’re a bildungsroman. You get cancer, and just like that, you’re science fiction.

Had Golden Days not been assigned for professor William Handley’s Literature of California class, I might have quit reading at chapter two when Edith takes an elaborately described Tony Robbins-esque motivational seminar. Sadly, I would have missed the whole point. Without the familiar world of the beginning of the novel, the extraordinary world at the end wouldn’t be nearly so affecting: “There I was, when the ripples stopped, toothless, almost gumless, not a hair by now to be seen on my billiard head, my lids growing back in a kind of bright yellow, my nose looking very unessential,” Edith explains.

See seems to be asking, in the event of a nuclear holocaust, what happens to people like us? And Edith answers: “I saw someone who had tried to love men and wasn’t ashamed of it, who had kept the memory of her best friend forever, who had a grandchild for each knee, who wasn’t scared anymore — or hardly ever …”

Incidentally, when people speak about the wastefulness of a modern liberal arts education, mine is the kind we’re talking about — classes in Postwar German Cinema and Modernist Poetry. But in defense of this kind of schooling, how do you know what to read unless someone who knows what they’re talking about, tells you? Your friends on the Internet are all well and good, but they only know what they know. They only like what they like. An arrogant little idiot like me needs a professor Handley to put her on the scent of something good, or at least something different and challenging.

Back then, Golden Days was not a book I would have picked up on my own, and yet, looking back, it was the one novel that convinced me that contemporary fiction is worth reading and writing. I’ve kept this novel a secret for 15 years, but I’m telling you now.

You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva and Rose Friedman with production assistance from Gavin Bade. [Copyright 2012 National Public Radio]

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