A Road Map to Navigate Life’s Elsewheres

Dana Johnson’s debut novel reveals a universe hidden within a simple phrase: “I’m just from California.”

california road maps

California is where people from elsewhere wind up, the state likes to tell itself. It’s a powerful myth, made more resonant by truth. Every day, people arrive in Reseda, in Turlock, in Sacramento and San Diego at the end (or in continuation) of remarkable journeys. But within the state, every day, a related voyage is undertaken by millions too, one you might put this way: there are elsewheres within California. Indeed, there are elsewheres within single Californian cities. From South Los Angeles to West Covina, the L.A. suburb where the narrator of Dana Johnson’s debut novel grows up, for example, stretches a distance of just 28 miles. In reality, the gap between these two neighborhoods is so vast in cultural and racial stakes, it gives Johnson’s heroine a lifelong case of vertigo.

Elsewhere, California is Johnson’s brilliant map of the questions this journey poses for an artist, especially if she wants to make art out of where she is from. How far back does she go? What language does she use? Whose values matter, and how does she begin to portray how people’s imaginations create roles she can try on, or even live inside? Reject or take comfort in? Reading Elsewhere, California doesn’t so much answer these questions as drive us past them in different shapes and forms, dramatizing their demand to be asked and posed anew, to never be taken for granted. Even if the woman asking them appears to live the good life, as Avery Arlington, the novel’s heroine, does.

A sense of unease and fraudulence has crept into Avery’s life.

All maps need to start with scale, it’s how we appreciate distance. Avery’s starts with her parents’ lives as this map’s legend—where they came from, how they thought. “My parents were not playful people,” the book begins, as if to signal that Avery’s life of choices, that her anxiety about the direction her life has gone, is already a significant journey of scale from where their own began. The Arlingtons came west in the great migration from Tennessee, “all the way from Africa,” her father liked to tell her as a kid in one of their games. “I’m not from any of those places,” she’d reply when goaded into listening to tales of hardship. “I’m just from California.”

The complexity that lies within that four-word sentence is the territory this book sets out to chart. To do so, Johnson draws on all the first-person sounds of revelation, and some of the details of her own life. Like her heroine, she was born in South L.A. and moved to West Covina at a young age. Johnson has thought a lot about the particulars of the class journey to becoming an artist. Elsewhere, California is almost 10 years old, making it ahead of the current moment’s obsession with autofiction.

Elsewhere, California is too dramatic, too uncontained, and ultimately too invented to be classified as autofiction. Its setup has the coherent vertigo of a noir film. As the book opens, a sense of unease and fraudulence has crept into Avery’s life. She lives in the Hollywood Hills, married to a wealthy Italian builder, trying to paint. Unhappiness has sent her to a therapist, then onward to a hypnotherapist. Avery’s grown brother, who we later learn works at UPS and still lives in the San Gabriel Valley, where they grew up, scorns his sister’s pain. “My brother Owen said that my main trauma was that the house I was living in,” Avery quips, “was too big for me to clean all by myself.” Not that long ago, their mother cleaned houses, so Avery's brother's choice of insult has its barbs.

A Dana Johnson fan might be forgiven a bit of déjà vu. This state of affairs is where Johnson’s debut collection, Break Any Woman Down, left off. The collection began with Avery moving into a new school and developing a crush on a white classmate. It ended with Avery grown-up, looking after her mother, drinking too much, and confused by her relationship with Massimo, a strong-willed Italian man determined to spoil her.

Although they share characters, Elsewhere, California is very different from the collection that precedes it, for it shows you the uncanny fractures that develop out of simultaneity—within the person. After its opening scene, the book splits into two threads, one taking place in the present tense, as we build to an exhibit of Avery’s paintings that she plans to host; the other happening in the past. The two sections unfold in different languages: the present Avery narrates in the voice she has learned to speak in through practice and education, the kind of voice that is from nowhere or elsewhere.

The voice of the past Avery is told in the vernacular she spoke as a child. The one she learned not to speak, most of the time. The kind shame teaches her not to use. “It sounds like theres a whole bunch a people somewhere that I have never even met and they watching me,” Avery says, recalling a night she was scolded by her father for cursing at a white neighbor’s house. “They disappointed in me because they all taught me better than what Im doing.”

Over the course of the book, these two languages gravitate toward each other, intermingle and infiltrate the imaginaries each section creates. This movement is dazzlingly well handled. It’s like realizing that the melody of each sound has not begun in one place or another, but emerges only in the conversation between the two. It’s not, after all, as if Avery’s parents didn’t encourage her sense of migration, of elsewheres, through example. When friends from their old neighborhood come over and are too loud, Avery’s father says, “Dash need to stay his ass on 80th Street,” referring to South L.A.

Elsewhere, California sheds light on the paradoxes of this upbringing, in which Avery is reminded to remember where she’s from, but not too much. Like so many parents, hers send her to the kind of school that will reinforce this lesson. Gradually attending to how white women at school speak to her mother, and how white neighbors encourage her to speak, Avery begins a process of watching herself from the outside. As she falls in love with the Dodgers, and delights to Fernando Valenzuela’s high leg kick, as she drops to the ground to practice earthquake preparedness, another part of her is always watching her performance for flaws.

Johnson traces the costs and consequences of this double consciousness in Avery’s life, showing how an ability to adapt turns into a sense of distrust when her adaptation succeeds. After they meet at a bar, Massimo plying Avery with flattering lines but an even more flattering sense of restraint, he takes her on a date. They pull up to a great big house in the hills, and he comes around to open her car door, a gesture she has seen only on television before. “I had always hoped that one day, a boy would take me out on a date and treat me that way, the way Massimo was treating me, and yet when he...reached for my hand, I was embarrassed. I thought he was making fun of me.”

Elsewhere, California is powered by intimate moments, like this, wherein the contradictions of a journey—you are here, you have arrived, and yet you never do—are drawn beautifully out in the weave of life, then heightened by their juxtaposition to the past. We learn how in the beginning of their relationship, Massimo was fascinated and turned on by Avery’s dark skin, pleased to see it against white sheets. Against his lighter skin. Around the same time, narrating from the past, Avery shows us how she learned to be around white people. She develops crushes on white actors and singers. A source of shame and worry for her mother. Of ridicule by her cousin Keith.

Massimo worships and desires Avery, wants for her to enjoy her art, but he contains contradictions.

Unlike so many novels about artists, Elsewhere, California has given its heroine an oeuvre you want to see hung in a gallery. In addition to portraits and paintings, Avery has done a series in which she paints well-known white celebrities in blackface, first tarnishing their shiny images with blobs of paint here and there, then suddenly rendering them entirely in blackface. The effect of these works—and other pieces described herein—is powerful, moody, and mysterious. They are not easily categorized by like or dislike, but rather weight and pressure. Like the colors Johnson uses throughout the novel—this story is saturated in Avery’s eye for shades, for the gradations within gray and white, in blue—this artwork applies pressure to the plot and creates states of mind in the reader that are vivid and complex.

This tendering of life into its most robust state allows Johnson to honestly portray a relationship that has tensions, power dynamics, and sexual anxieties woven among its tendernesses. In other words, it feels real. Massimo worships and desires Avery, wants for her to enjoy her art, but he contains contradictions. In some moments he thrills to her shaved head, strokes it in ways she likes; in others, when, for example, they are pulled over by a police officer who addresses Avery as “sir,” he is appalled and embarrassed by the fluidity of how her gender is interpreted. Mostly for himself.

As Elsewhere, California progresses, it makes the most of the complexity it has mapped in Avery’s life, showing how in any state of existence we can be at least two things, often more. Brenna, Avery’s best friend growing up, has never totally departed and is a supporter as much as a heckler. Similarly, even though Keith, Avery’s cousin, wound up in prison, he has not departed into the past either, reentering her life in abrupt and sometimes frightening ways like a haunting. It’s a persistence that lingers like desire, but it has as much to do with shame as it does love.

Where is the road map for how to navigate such treacherous relationships? Avery seems to ask at certain points in this sumptuously thoughtful book. Where is the map that says, this is how you live this? Elsewhere, California is both the record of that question and a hopeful act of creation that shows that asking it well enough can be a kind of answer.•

To join Alta’s California Book Club conversation with Johnson on August 19, click here.

John Freeman is the host of the California Book Club.
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