On a strictly surface level, the strangest thing about California, Edan Lepucki's 2014 novel—which became a runaway best-seller after Stephen Colbert's recommendation—was that the book's name wasn't already taken. How does one sum up the literary unconscious of America's most populous and perhaps iconic state, responsible for Hollywood, hippies, Ronald Reagan, and the internet as we know it? Would a book titled California comprise a witty takedown of Google company culture like Dave Eggers's The Circle? Would it, like Paul Beatty's brilliant The Sellout, gleefully subvert racial stereotypes, propriety, and the LAPD? Could it be a story of seduction by a Manson-esque killer like Emma Cline's The Girls (an excerpt from which was published by VICE Magazine)? Or were we talking about a more primeval Golden State, John Steinbeck's prelapsarian Salinas Valley from East of Eden, or the 60s netherworld of Joan Didion's Slouching Towards Bethlehem or luridly fictionalized in Play It as It Lays? In fact, Lepucki's California was a post-apocalypse novel, principally concerned with examining the breakdown of the nuclear family unit against the usual backdrop of roving death squads, cults, and verdant hills studded with deserted homes giving way to desolate wastelands.
In Lepucki's latest novel, Woman No. 17, we're back in the hills and there's no longer any need for noisy heralding of the end times—the present is calamitous enough. But once again, the novel pointedly, obsessively circles the disintegration of familial relationships, wondering at the superfluity of husbands ("something larval and speck-brained") and mothers ("marooned on our pathetic female island") in the life of the modern, career-driven woman. Speaking of careers, you know we're in the Hollywood Hills by the characters' resumes: unproduced screenwriter, network comedy wardrobe assistant, conceptual photographer, live-in nanny, personal assistant to a faded scream queen, mommy blogger. The last two describe Lady Daniels, the first and more arch of our two narrators, who is introduced speculating about the uniform attractiveness of valley girls ("the beauty's in the tap water").
VICE Meets Norwegian international literary sensation Karl Ove Knausgaard:
Lady's insistence on her professional autonomy is such that she's stopped speaking to her sadistic, hated mother and kicked out her husband Karl, in favor of her "nonverbal" teenage son, Seth, the subject of her forthcoming memoir. Seth speaks via a combination of texts and American Sign Language, but isn't actually deaf or autistic. Instead, his silence is bookishly metaphorical. The grotesque quirk is something out of a Southern gothic novel by Carson McCullers or Charles Willeford, except that Seth is a creature of Los Angeles, whose bare feet Lady imagines black and sparkling "like the sidewalks of Hollywood Boulevard."
Lady hires Esther Shapiro, the novel's second narrator, to look after her younger son Devin so she can write. Esther is an aspiring artist from Berkeley who has taken the more spinsterish alias S Fowler. Her interest in the Daniels family is motivated by more than maternity: S is fixated on Lady's sister-in-law, the photographer Kit Daniels, who once made Lady's image famous as "Woman Number 17." S moves into a backyard cottage and immediately demonstrates an uncanny rapport with the youthful Seth, which builds to a flirtation right under Lady's nose, placing the two women in a subtle rivalry bordered on both sides by—in shoddy film noir terms—psychosexual craving. Actually, Lady and S come off as having almost too many skeletons in the closet for just a couple of characters. And there's more thematic balls in the air than the plot can juggle, so Woman No. 17 doesn't quite come off as being set in reality.
Then again, the state of California itself isn't quite set in reality, either. The region is more sharply tinted, it seems, than the rest of America. Yet, at the same time, it's permanently aspirational, a poolside Babylon flecked with doomed screenwriters, celebrity recluses, and ex-models, atmosphere thick with pollution and the absorbed fog of detective stories.
The West has supplanted the South as the setting for the most timely, broadly psychological American fiction being written. If the South is the country's scar tissue, California is its therapy couch. The issues being worked out in Woman No. 17, and other novels like The Girls and Claire Vaye Watkins's Gold Fame Citrus, are often more personal than political. Something about the West sets the human into sharp relief. More than generalized suburbia or a retro-New York embalmed with nostalgia, it's California that best characterizes contemporary America's literary output.
It used to be that when you were talking about dreamy moral chessboards and mordant family chronicles, you were talking about the Southern novel. For Flannery O'Connor, "a literature which mirrors society would be no fit guide for it," and the result was a prose that did more than represent a social attitude or cohesive style, it took place in a realm of Biblical parable that seemed to excuse the liberties it took in representing the post-Antebellum reality. For most of the 20th Century, Southern literature was American literature, both the country's most demonstrative export and its most exclusive sub-genre. William Faulker's Yoknapatawpha County was a boiled-down-to-the-essentials America that managed to be both inside the world and beyond it, a place whose very specificity somehow bled into universality. That place is now California, which is not to say that nobody writes about the South (Jesmyn Ward, Ron Rash, Jamie Quatro) or that edgy irreality from the West Coast is some kind of recent phenomenon (see: Nathanael West's searing satires from the 1930s).
But contemporary Southern writers are more likely to shed their Southern-ness in print and avoid being pigeonholed as parochial or regional. California, meanwhile, has its Faulknerian godheads (Steinbeck, Stegner), its O'Connor-ish interpreter (Didion), and, in Edan Lepucki, an envoy to the bestseller lists. It's also where the sun goes down, where myths are manufactured, and the eventual destination of every commercial strip mall and roadside diner. The Los Angeles of Woman No. 17 is, above all, a state of mind where people—almost entirely women—recede into their archetypes somewhere between Studio City and Laurel Canyon, becoming both more and less than human: The sum of their failed relationships and hopes, little more than a number.
Recent work by J. W. McCormack appears in Conjunctions, the Culture Trip, the New York Times, and the New Republic.
Woman No. 17 by Edan Lepucki is available in bookstores and online from Hogarth.