A Novel Follows Lives Scattered in the California Desert

THE BEFORELAND By Corinna Vallianatos Nearly halfway through Corinna Vallianatos’s new novel, “The Beforeland,” Audrey, a young woman w...


THE BEFORELAND
By Corinna Vallianatos

Nearly halfway through Corinna Vallianatos’s new novel, “The Beforeland,” Audrey, a young woman who has recently lost her husband to suicide, reflects on an episode that helped shape her sense of self. While working as a theater usher in the summer after high school, she spent most of her time reading and dreaming about how she would devote her life to books in some way. Then, when she was suddenly fired by her exacting boss, she realized “she would never be this kind of woman, who calmly and with surgical elegance separated the wheat from the chaff. Audrey was the chaff. She lay scattered.”

Vallianatos fills her novel with others who might be considered chaff, giving space and dignity to those plagued by their failures to launch. There’s Audrey’s older husband, Wilson, an adjunct poetry professor who, unable to write his book, finds his relevance slipping away. Once his bright-eyed student, Audrey embarked with him on a dispassionate affair, which led to a listless marriage and the kind of sex that Audrey describes as “orifice hunting.”

Audrey’s younger brother, Stone Jay, is a young man who lives “beneath the surface of respectability.” (The complexities of their relationship call to mind Jenny Offill’s “Weather,” and the concern of keeping your siblings alive.) There’s also Audrey’s mother, Clarice, who spends her waning days in an assisted living facility and who seems to understand that her unremarkable life has set her children on their own paths of mediocrity. Their quiet lives are set against a Southern California backdrop of nondescript strip malls filled with “wig stores, gun stores, health food stores” and a failing desert motel helmed by Elena, who is also weighed down by her own hopeless future.

The characters’ lives intersect with those of a pair of loners who at first are simply called “the boy” and “the grandmother,” who live their lives even further on the margins. Vallianatos’s evocative descriptions cut to the quick here: The boy “looked like poverty, a point of inconsequence pinned to the earth. He looked like crooked teeth. He looked like skinny limbs. He looked like an aluminum scrap of wind. At 18 he looked 12.”

The grandmother, Doreen, has kept her grandson on the move, eschewing the forces of capitalism that order the rest of our lives. They drive hundreds of miles from Humboldt County to the hinterlands of Southern California, where towns pockmark the desert and people struggle to leave some kind of mark before they go. Vallianatos’s gorgeous descriptions of these Inland Empire communities provide a dreamy quality to the windswept lives of her characters, who scheme at building something bigger for themselves.

Doreen eventually finds a space to stop running from her memories, in the same assisted living facility where Audrey’s mother waits out her own life. The boy must now navigate his own life, without his oppressive grandmother.

For all their medium-size ambition, the characters seem unwilling to reckon with their present situations, despite the fact that the novel opens with a gunshot — a kind of wake-up call for all involved. While Vallianatos allows them room to chart their disappointments and try to wriggle out of the constrictions they face, their stories remain uneven. With so many people to follow in such a slim novel, connections feel fleeting even as the disappointments accumulate. And the reader wonders: Who are they allowed to be beyond their failures?

Even so, Vallianatos’s haunting and precise writing captures the folly of believing in possibility in a country where capitalism is king and most are left out of its abundance.

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Newsrust: A Novel Follows Lives Scattered in the California Desert
A Novel Follows Lives Scattered in the California Desert
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