Land of promise

Paul Constant

March 06, 2018

"What we were heading toward," Seattle writer Natalie Singer writes at the beginning of her new memoir…

…was bigger than a natural, perfect family. In that plane, over the next six hours, I would cross over into what I hoped would be my own version of freedom. By the time the plane touched down at the San Jose International Airport, I would be unburdened of the pressures of my old high school, the weight of family secrets that burned like a brand, and the loneliness of my existence in the nowhere of the North.

Something was calling to me.

California.

Singer's book is titled California Calling and it's subtitled A Self-Interrogation. It follows Singer from her childhood in a nontraditional Canadian family through her adulthood, and the one constant in her life through all that time: her dreams of running away to California.

"I have an attraction to escape stories, to reinvention narratives, tales of Amish, Orthodox, and polygamist girls, of girls locked in attics, ushering in their own freedom, heisting it," Singer writes. California is that escape for Singer, precisely because California is a state of mind. It's too big to completely capture in a word, a sentence, a paragraph. California is mountains and beaches and deserts and lakes. It's cities and farms and vast, empty expanses. Even if you stand in one spot in California, you experience a number of realities all at once:

Because of the transitional topography of northern California's Sierra slope, a full range of seasons can occur at any time, from major blizzards to dry scorchers, warm clear nights to intense, blasting thunderstorms. Winds of great speeds are capable of whipping through the region causing damage during any month of the year. Pristine warm days can be followed by cold stormy nights. You like this idea of a transition zone.

The book is set up in a series of questions and answers, a ruthless interview of Singer, by Singer. Each volley of call and response is its own tiny chapter, leaving the book with a rat-a-tat rhythm that keeps the reader whipping through pages. The tone is conversational, but also more than a little accusatory.

One "question," for instance, is a statement: "You're not saying anything about your mother."

Singer replies, all conciliation and surprise: "Right. Oversight, sorry. Because she is everywhere, everything, rule arbiter and family concierge and friend of my days, every minute of them."

The self-interrogation is a gimmick, to be sure, but a good one. It allows Singer to criticize her own actions without feeling too namby-pamby, and it creates a workable distance between her youthful indiscretions and her modern-day reporting.

Of course, Singer is far from the first person to become obsessed with the idea of California. Pioneers for centuries have gone west in search of reinvention and renewed opportunity. Even after every last inch of its topography had been mapped from orbit, California maintained a certain mystery that Singer found irresistible. She was drawn to California by the same gravity that drew generations before her: the belief that maybe this one time, changing a body's location in the world will finally be enough to change a mind.

It's obvious that what Singer loves about California are the aspects that she sees of herself in the state: the vivid potential, the unknowable air, the contradictory states of being. No one person can claim to know all of California, and Singer similarly defies easy categorization - which explains why she spends hundreds of pages interviewing herself.

And in a lot of ways, California Calling is the story of coming to terms with the unknowable aspects of yourself. It's no mistake that a recurring image in the book involves Singer admiring bodies of water that she never gets to immerse herself in. She covets a hot tub that's been mounted on a tall porch, but she never uses it because she fears a structural collapse. She lusts after a beautiful pool at the house where she gets a nannying job, but she's too meek to ask if she can go for a swim.

Chuck Berry famously compared California to the Promised Land:

And the thing about a Promised Land is that it doesn't retain its magic unless there's a Moses in the story to lead people to it and witness it and, ultimately, never set foot into it. Singer does get to California - in fact, she spends long swaths of the book in California — but the yearning doesn't go away. There's always somewhere else she could be, some other hot tub to picture herself in.

This all sounds painfully serious. You should know that California Calling is a fun and funny book, too. It's filled with references to Twilight and Island of the Blue Dolphins and an extended pager metaphor. Singer's restless brain never stops finding new and ridiculous ways to express her rich internal life to her readers.

Ultimately, California Calling is a rollicking road trip of a book with a driver who can't stop pointing out places of historical interest to all her passengers. Singer's map is incomplete, and she threatens to take her reader off-road at any moment. But that's okay; you'll never completely fall off the map in California. There's always more west to discover.

Books in this review:
  • California Calling
    by Natalie Singer

    March 01, 2018
    320 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writer

Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the Los Angeles Times, the Seattle Times, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.

Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant

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