The Last Days of California by Mary Miller
Liveright Press, 2014, 256 pp
Reviewed by Zach VandeZande
Every few months, I come across a writer that grabs hold of my consciousness and shakes it around awhile. Since this is my first review for AMRI, I think it’s useful for you to know a few of them. A few years ago, it was Carole Maso, with her quiet, perfectly balanced philosophical ruminations on art, womanhood, and death. Then it was Milorad Pavic, who seemed to be writing about everything at once in Dictionary of the Khazars, a demonstration of the novel as a history of the world entire. This fall, it was Susan Steinberg, whose “Hey asshole, I’ve got your stereo!” brand of punchy feminine power spoke equally to the me that listened to Bikini Kill on long car rides in college and the me that ate up Viriginia Woolf in grad school. And of course David Foster Wallace, always, since I’m one of those people.
And now, if you’ve been out to a bar with me lately, you’ll know already that Mary Miller’s got hold of me. Her collection Big World was a pleasant surprise, a book I tracked down after finding a note in my phone that I couldn’t remember writing to myself. I devoured it in a day (the book, not my phone). Her characters were desperate people in desperate situations. They weren’t often likable, but they were lovable, and they were trying, and so I loved them easily. Now, Mary Miller’s released her first novel, The Last Days of California, and it is in every way a fulfilling of the promise she made in Big World.
Like many good stories, the novel begins in a Waffle House, where a family of four is having a meal on their way to California. They intend to arrive in time for the beginning of the Christian rapture. The narrator, Jess, is fifteen and not a knockout and feeling all the complicated anxieties that go along with family road trips, the real-to-her possibility that she is experiencing the end of days, and being a sister to Elise (who is seventeen and a knockout and in a great deal of trouble of her own). The book is less concerned with the plot (which vaguely echoes As I Lay Dying, as each family member seems to be careening toward their own personal apocalypse while still being connected to the apocalypse that the family is chasing together) than it is with exploring who Jess is, particularly in relation to her sister. Miller does an expert job of capturing the claustrophobia of the situation through Jess’s eyes, whether it’s the claustrophobia of the car, of Elise’s shadow, or of a world that wants things of her that she may not be ready to give.
Through Jess, Miller shows she is the master of the understated yet poignant observation. A line like “Every morning the birds sounded different because they were different birds” seems so effortless, but does so much in showing us the character’s state of mind, reminding us of the journey’s forward momentum, and getting us a little closer to the sharp mind that’s crafting the narrative without tipping her hand and sounding too much like an adult. Or take a passage like this, from towards the end of the novel: “I could hear my heartbeat and remembered that it only had so many. It seemed cruel, putting a little bomb inside us like this, something that we had to always find new ways to ignore.” I mean, oof.
As can be expected for a novel that begins in a Waffle House, things don’t go well for the family. In an early scene, the family witnesses a fatal car crash (whether this can be attributed as cause for Jess questioning her faith is left up to the reader). The father is torn between belief that he will be in heaven by the weekend and still being frugal with his money. Elise is desperate and has a fake ID. All of this weighs on Jess, as does determining her place in the possibly-ending world. Whether the world ends or not, there’s something final going on here for her.
In capturing the particular anxieties of a teenage girl, Miller is capturing some of the universal anxieties of any age, and she does so with the kind of empathy and curiosity about the world that is sorely needed in American thought. The easy move when writing about a family seeking the rapture would be to slip into cynicism or empty meta-irony, but Miller treats the family’s Christian roots with an open sincerity and empathy, which, by the way, is the same way she treats her reader.
When I finished the book, I wanted to call someone and apologize, not for anything I had done, but for the world that we live in, the one that is at once so confusing and hard and thrilling, how we love it just the same, how we have to in order to get by, and how the sweetness is there, sometimes just beyond our reach. It’s that kind of book.