I started reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s Forty Signs of Rain this week. Robinson earned both his B.A. and his Ph.D. from the University of California, San Diego and he sets his bi-coastal novel partly in San Diego and partly in Washington, D.C. From the start, he describes a day-to-day routine that is incredibly familiar. A professional woman and mother of two small children goes through the motions of getting ready for work and leaving her husband to thaw the breast milk, feed the infant, get the toddler dressed, take the kids to daycare, and other minutiae managed as the day begins. Robinson captures perfectly the awfulness of leaving your kid at preschool for the day and the incredible fact of personality differences that you notice in your children almost the instance your second kid is born. My wife and I have lived this over the past five-and-a-half years, but it’s general enough that reading it wasn’t unsettling in any way. But when he describes another morning routine–this time involving Leo Mulhouse’s drive from his home on top of a beach side cliff in Leucadia, California to his office at a biotech startup between the Torrey Pines golf course and UCSD–the similarities are too local, too irregular. This, despite Robinson’s efforts to imbue the novel’s opening pages with mundane routine only to be ruptured, first by the arrival of Buddhist islanders into the space of the National Science Foundation and second by the potential of a major (and possibly extremely lucrative) scientific discovery in a lab in San Diego.
Describing Leo Mulhouse’s morning, Robinson writes,
Leo Mulhouse took the coast highway to work every morning. He liked seeing the ocean, and feeling the slight roller-coaster effect of dropping down to cross the lagoons, then motoring back up little rises to Cardiff, Solano Beach, and Del Mar. These towns looked best at this hour, deserted and as if washed for the new day. Hiss of tires on wet road, wet squeak of windshield wipers, distant boom of the waves breaking–it all combined to make a kind of aquatic experience, the drive like surfing, up and down the same bowls every time, riding the perpetual wave of land about to break into the sea.
This bit of detail is dischordant. I live very close to the fictional lab and the very real golf course. I regularly drive the undulating highways and coastal roads that cross the lagoons and glisten with the grounded mist of the June gloom. It is nothing like surfing, but I understand the impulse to associate the scene with the surfing happening up and down the beaches. Yet reading this yanks me from the novel precisely because it is so familiar. It is familiar in a way that the morning routine of breast milk and baby cages is not because unlike the former, the latter never seem to settle into permanence and pre-interpretation. Or maybe its post-interpretation. I always had the sense that heating milk in the pre-dawn dark or a rough morning at preschool drop off was one of a limited number of times that it would be that way. The experience was always fleeting.
Not so for those experiences associated with driving up and down parts of the Southern California coast. These places are internalized and affective rather than linguistic. When Robinson attempts to interpret these places through language, it runs up against that part of the self that will always find words inadequate. And so this description yanks me out of the novel and into the zone of interpretation that comes after the phenomena of experience. Perhaps this helps explain our fascination with other people’s stories. It’s not just because we are fascinated by the variety of human experience, but because we are more at ease with interpretation when it is done outside our particular lives.