From California publisher Heyday Books comes New California Writing 2011, the first of an annual publication that aims to be the America’s Best of writing from the Land of Fruits and Nuts. The book compiles poetry, fiction, and nonfiction; some are taken from larger works, others from newspapers and weblogs, and at least one is a commencement speech.
Most of us know California as a tourist excursion—a day or two in Disneyland, an afternoon on the beach, dinner on Fisherman’s Wharf, maybe a five-hour drive in a rented Mustang along Big Sur’s twisted coastal highway—or from sources of entertainment: ubiquitous songs about L.A., The O.C., car chases on Headline News, anything coming out of Hollywood. It’s clear from the collection’s very first piece—Michael Chabon’s “Normal Time”—that series editor Gayle Wattawa and publisher Malcolm Margolin aim to present a California apart from its ballooning reputation. As Chabon’s sense of time and family gives way to Dagoberto Gilb’s memoir of fathers and sons, all of the Cali clichés fade away.
Notably, and thankfully, the collection also lacks high-minded attempts to define what exactly California is, apart from Margolin’s introduction, and even it defines it without nailing it down. “California was invented on a sunny fall day in 1849,” writes the founder/owner of Heyday Books, a Berkeley transplant from New York. “California is a construct of the human imagination. Without an inherent physical or cultural coherence to define it, it has long served as the world’s largest Rorschach test…From everywhere people came to a California whose only boundaries were the human imagination.”
In this compilation, the collective thread is not always clearly sewn. Some pieces, like Emily Taylor’s brilliant and amusing retelling of Noah and the Flood, don’t even nudge California, but in the end that hardly seems to matter. Over setting and beyond an all-encompassing point, the collection is driven by people: individuals or communities offering their own side-blinded interpretations of the ink blot, characters who are focused primarily on their own nook—like Jennifer Egan’s Bay Area punks, in an excerpt from her novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad:
I follow her up the fluffy stairs to her actual room, which I’ve never seen…Her bed is under a mountain of stuffed animals, which all turn out to be frogs: bright green, light green, Day-Glo green, some with stuffed flies attached to their tongues. Her bedside lamp is shaped like a frog, plus her pillow.
I go, I didn’t know you were into frogs, and Alice goes, How would you?
Like all good writing, the stories of New California Writing are universally accessible. The series' inaugural publication has set a high standard; next year's entry should be well worth anticipating.