Monthly Archives: July 2017

A Maximum Minimalist

My usual reading tends to concentrate in two areas: the classics, and detective novels. Since both these genres go back many decades (not to say centuries), a corollary of this is that I don’t read a lot of contemporary fiction. There are exceptions, however. The New York Review of Books is my favorite journal; as such, I give special attention to writers, and books, that are discussed there. Recently in that publication, Joyce Carol Oates wrote an article about works by the American writer Mary Miller (born 1977). [1] Two of these books are short-story collections. The third is The Last Days of California (2014). So far, it is Miller’s only novel. Oates’ review of this novel was not totally glowing, but there was something about this book — perhaps the quotations from it? — that caught my eye.

The story takes place over only four days. It’s about a family on a road trip from their home in Montgomery, Alabama to California. The father believes the end of the world is coming soon, and is trying to “save” as many people as he can, buttonholing strangers and passing out leaflets along the way. His reasons for going to California are not too clear, but he seems to be on some kind of pilgrimage. Jess, the narrator, is 15 years old. Her mother, and 17-year old sister Elise, are also on the trip with her.

The Oates review attaches the label of “minimalism” to the book. Even though I like the writings of at least one “minimalist” — Raymond Carver [2] — there is something barren-sounding about that designation. I’m glad it did not put me off from reading this novel, which certainly came across as very rich to me.

True to its “minimalist” badge, there are many seemingly unimportant events described in the book (as you can imagine from the time span of only a few days). (Even these events strangely held my interest, however.) But as well, both Jess and Elise undergo some quite momentous experiences. (Being averse to spoilers myself, I will refrain from elaboration on this.)

It seems paradoxical, but even though I have very little idea of what a teenage girl’s inner life is like, Jess comes across as completely genuine. Perhaps a considerable part of this lies in the contradictions exhibited in her behavior, feelings, and beliefs. (Being a teenager, poised between youth and adulthood.) One could start with her obsession with her (alleged) excess poundage, while blithely munching on junk food! For a couple of further examples, let me turn to some passages from the novel.

The first selection shows how perverse Jess can be, engaging in behavior which she knows very well will result in bad things:

My favorite [Stephen King book] was Duma Key. I also liked It and The Tommyknockers. The books frightened me but it didn’t make me not want to read them. This seemed to imply something defective in my character. It was like the other things I did to make my life harder—eating too much when I knew I’d get a stomachache, drinking water when I had to pee and there was nowhere to use the bathroom.

The next passage — with its jolting turnabout in the middle — seems to encapsulate the wide emotional swings that an adolescent could have. Note that at both ends of this spectrum, no communication with the parents will result!

I picked up my milkshake and turned to the window. At some point, my feelings for my parents had changed. I mostly felt nothing and couldn’t think of anything to say to them, but it [sic] was periodically broken by a brief, crushing feeling, a love so intense that there was nothing to do but reject it altogether.

Next, Jess relates an encounter with a boy at one of the motels where the family stopped. Another jolt for me, as the passage goes from an alleged world-weariness, to the pure desire expressed in the last sentence:

“Hey, girl,” Gabe said, “you want another?”

“Keep ’em coming,” I said, though my beer was still half-full. I liked how he called me girl, as if there were too many girls to remember, as if the names of girls would take up too much space in his head. If he liked me, maybe I could become pretty girl or even my girl. But for this to happen, we’d have to fast-forward past all of this getting-to-know-you business. We’d have to pretend we already knew each other. People were so similar once you got to know them.

I watched him out of the corner of my eye, his body in constant motion, an ankle bouncing on a knee, his hand lifting a can to his mouth. I wanted to feel his body move over mine.

Jess feels she is in the shade of her older sister Elise, who is slender and turns heads wherever she goes. But I defy you to read Jess’ unsparing revelations, and not root for this ugly duckling who is perhaps not so ugly after all.

In sum: My encounter with this achingly beautiful novel has encouraged me to delve more into contemporary literature!

[1] Joyce Carol Oates, “Postcards from the Edge”, New York Review of Books, April 20, 2017.  You can read it here:  NYRB review

[2]  See my review:  The Short Story … featuring Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral”


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