“The year is 2008,” reads the press release for Lola, California, and that’s sort of true, but it also turns out to be 1981, and 1993, and lots of other years before and in between. One chapter is marked “1983 & 2008”; another “1970–1979”; another, late in the book, is simply “Soon.” Time shifts and is shifted throughout Lola, California, with no real warnings or discernable patterns, resulting in a narrative whose contexts are largely internal. (Even the epigraphs belong to the world of the book, excerpting a passage from a semi-religious text by one of the characters and a line from another’s diary.) When the book opens with a glimpse of Lana and Rose, the two friends at the center of the story, on vacation somewhere in Spain between high school semesters, the actual stuff of the scene turns out not to mean very much; the narrator even tells us outright that it could be one or another city, with any number of different choreographies, and all that matters is Rose, “bruisable and diffident,” crossing a plaza toward her friend. Similarly, it’s only the placement of this scene that helps define the scenes to come, even if its content has little bearing on the ensuing content of the girls’ lives.
Of that content we begin and end up knowing just enough to get by. Lana is the daughter of Vic and Rose Mahler, a couple of influence in Berkeley, CA, in the early 1970s, due mostly to Vic’s career as the author of a series of hifalutin’ self-help-type books, in which advice is dispensed and neologisms are introduced and perspectives are collided, such as: “The sum of the electric power available to us has decreased, even if locally it has increased” and “Heroic individualism is identification with ancestors in a new space and a new time” and “The soul is a penis.”
Under Vic’s shadow, it’s an exuberant but troubled childhood for Lana. Her best friend, Rose, accompanies the Mahlers on vacations and to Vic’s readings, which are attended by devotees known as Shaggies. Not much mention is made of Rose’s own family, other than that she was taken in by them at a young age. Together the pair follows Vic around the world of the book, adventuring and trying to impress this towering paternal figure and imposing themselves upon the scenery. The girls’ friendship suffers in college, and wanes over time with a kind of inevitability. More time goes by and they all drift apart—Vic to prison, for the sudden, brutal murder of his wife, Rose to New York City, where she will eventually become a lawyer, and Lana to a series of destinations that take her farther and farther from her past.
If there’s a present tense to the story, it’s to be found in the reunion of Lana and Rose, days before Vic’s execution. Rose’s job as a lawyer who doesn’t specialize in death law is a neat mirror to her childhood role as semi-member of the Mahler family; she looks the part and can hold her own for short conversations, but her contributions ultimately don’t fool anyone. Her determination to arrange for Lana to visit with Vic in prison may at first seem confusing (as a surrogate daughter, she was no less betrayed by his actions), but that’s at least partially the point. Vic and Lana together is to her simply how things ought to be; it’s as if, in separating father and child, someone had rubbed her fur the wrong way, and now she’s just fixing herself.
Like its chronology, the book’s prose is restless and extremely private, reflecting in its rhythms and selective attentions the ways in which the characters think without ever revealing exactly what. Life is attributed to inanimate objects by the merest look of one of the girls; the language of the present gives way anytime anything is remembered with clarity; sometimes even the chapter titles are used as part of the first sentence of the chapters. The book’s success depends more upon its contexts than anything else, and context can be blamed accordingly for the lows (the disappointingly pedestrian nature of Vic’s crime, for instance) and the highs (Rose, a constant wonder who’s introduced as a vulnerable child and concluded as a woman with a man’s hand gently at rest on her skin). It’s a marvelous and frustratingly accurate immersion into a culture that thinks it has nothing better to do than to figure out how to wield its endless choices.
Edie Meidav’s Lola, California was released on July 5 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. To purchase it, click here.