Golden Days <i> by Carolyn See (McGraw-Hill: $15.95; 196 pp.) </i>
On Page 4 of this extraordinary new novel, Carolyn See writes disarmingly, “This is partly the story of Lorna Villanelle and me; two ladies absolutely crazed with the secret thought that they were something special. But if you think you aren’t going to care about this story, hold on. It’s the most important story in the Western world! Believe me.”
Believe her! Anybody who cares about anything should read this short novel, the author’s fourth, and the generals and hawks of our present Administration should hear it on tape as they sleep; be force-fed it, ground up and sprinkled on their steak and eggs. Long an admirer of her “Rhine Maidens,” I knew See was good--dry, trenchant, irreverent and intelligent, very much a California child, which to me implies a certain fearlessness about looking at the future. Now, as most writers circle or cringe under the heart-stopping shadow that hangs over us, she has taken The Unthinkable and turned it into a tale that is almost inspirational.
The story is about a group of Californians who survive a nuclear war (a requirement, of course, for any narrator of Doomsday), and some provocative suggestions why . The narrator is Edith, a divorcee with two daughters, who returns to her home territory to make her fortune. She buys a house in Topanga Canyon, where she and her live-in friend, Skip, put together a family out of family fragments, Skip’s frightened wife having moved to Buenos Aires during the Cuban missile crisis.
Edith and Lorna each have a string of failed marriages, some in darkest ‘50s fashion, some more colorful if just as painful. But the two ladies seem to be crazed less by intimations of uniqueness than by that puzzled, initially mute desperation that has since been translated into feminism. There is something special about Lorna, though: With a touch, she cures one child’s sprained ankle, another’s broken bone. She can be invisible. She can be two places at once. Later, as her magic powers develop more, her fingers leave a trail of stars and her feet burn circles in the grass.
These powers are strengthened by a charming charlatan and evangelist, Lion Boyce, who gives self-actualization seminars in a seedy San Francisco hotel. “ ‘Cosmic Jell-O,’ he kept saying. ‘Just think of the universe as red Jell-O.’ ” Doing cartwheels, he cries, “ ‘OOOO-eeee! I see abundance everywhere!’ ” Edith, covering the event for her newspaper column, and Skip are initially skeptical. But when Edith extends her arm and adds some shining light, she can support all of Skip’s weight, and the shadow in Skip’s lung he’d been hugging to himself--his ticket to the grave--disappears. There’s something to this stuff, See tells us, in her slangy, low-key way. “ ‘No wonder Easterners think we’re crazy!’ ” Edith observes.
After Lion’s seminar and the conversion of the kids, everything goes better for the family. The kids get A’s, the money rolls in faster than the eye can see and Skip--no longer old and sick--becomes Edith’s wonderful lover. Things are, in fact, too good to be true. It’s now spring of 1987, and the world situation is deteriorating. As small nuclear weapons are detonated in Third-World countries, people either panic or refuse to face the inevitable, such as the psychologist at a party who tells Edith her fear of war is a metaphor for her other fears--a chillingly familiar form of denial. “ ‘No,’ I said. I may have shouted it through the beautiful, sheltered room. ‘It’s my view that the other fears, all those of which we have spoken, are a metaphor for my fear of nuclear war!’ ”
Let me stand back for a moment. This is an imperfect book, scrappy and sometimes inconsistent. I could quibble with a thing or two--Edith’s fury, for instance, at a man who doesn’t consider Virginia Woolf a woman when, a few pages later, she says she doesn’t consider Henry James a man. “Golden Days” seems hastily put together, as though written in a race against the last deadline of all. And yet this perhaps unintentional mood of haste works. The most important points are not just told, they are almost preached, violating the old writers’ credo, “Don’t tell ‘em, show ‘em.” See draws passionate parallels (not for the first time, but let them be drawn a hundred times if necessary!) between the missile and the penis. She follows the obsession of men with both, the intricate connection between male fear of failure and ever bigger payloads and bigger bangs. “I had heard all my life that California was irrational. . . . But as a woman, and having seen, all my adult life, grim-lipped men jerking at their missiles . . . having that , as I say is designated by default as ‘rational’ . . . there was a conspiracy of brain cells on my part to say that maybe there was something else; death’s opposite . . . if women are opposite to men, and California with its easy money and easy ways was opposite to the fierce, demanding East, maybe Lorna, maybe even that loony faggot in the white linen suit” (Lion) . . . “maybe they were opposite to something. Maybe they were on to it.”
They say that the aftermath of nuclear disaster must inevitably be far worse than the darkest prophecy. In See’s vision, Edith, Skip, the children and a few others, protected by the canyon walls, survive, as some survived Hiroshima. They save their house from the firestorm by homely techniques learned for combatting local brush fires. They live on brown rice, water from a nearby stream, vitamins, penicillin, snails and, when it starts to grow again, anything green. They force it all down again and again till the digestive system accepts it. The hot weather dries out the radiation dead and the plague dead. The skin of the survivors, having sloughed off when “the air began to burn,” grows back thick and brown. Edith embeds the precious stones she once bought for investment into the skin of her hands as it grows back; her hands are like “glittering stone gloves.” The survivors are sore, sick, benumbed animals, but they are alive, and the terrible fear is gone. As they grope their way back to life, Edith knows that these are the Golden Days. Like Lorna, she preaches. “ ‘Some will call this the Dark Ages, but I know this will be the Age of Light.’ ” As she talks, sparks come from her fingers too. “There will be no more false prophets, only real ones. We’re in the desert again, and the new Jerusalem.”
“On the whole, they say, people got what they expected. The generals and the military were very hard hit. A certain kind of women and children were devastated. . . . " But there were survivors: “a race of hardy laughers, mystics, crazies, who knew their real homes, or who had been drawn to this gold coast for years.” This, then, is See’s haunting vision; that maybe there’s protective power in a certain turn of mind or way of life (which blooms not only in California but in other places too); the Yin, the Beta, the Hippieism, the ideological opposite of the institutionalized insanity that passes for international policy; the female principle, but not confined to women; the kind of thinking that could--were it in higher places--save our lives.
This author’s passionate purpose is to cry stop to the nuclear buildup, the immense, out-of-control playground fight that starts with nothing and can’t stop till blood is spilled and something has “won.” Is there a woman alive who hasn’t shivered as the man next to her floors the accelerator to race with a passing car, or is incited to near-violence by some imperceptible affront or “failure” in bed? See is frightened to death and angry to her bones.
This is a very, very important book.