Most present day American suburbs were established between 1940 and 1970, a time that was, as novelist and critic Jess Row notes in his essay “White Flights,” marked by “explicit racism.” White flight, a fittingly assonant, synesthetically color-coded term, refers to the way white people flee multiracial spaces—from 1940 to 1970 this meant the urban — toward overwhelmingly white spaces — the suburban or wild. White flight is propelled by a fantasy of “deracination,” an ambiguous term that in the context of American literature, Row argues, means “not to strip the roots but to strip away race, to de-race oneself.” Row goes on:
deracination is a long-lived and nearly universal trope in white American literature… Subconsciously deracination probably has…to do with a desire not to have one’s visual field constantly invaded by inconveniently different faces—relationships that are fraught, unfixed, capable of producing equal measures of helplessness and guilt. But there is also, perhaps almost too easy to ignore, the question of scale—the scale our lives are measured against, the fundamental American desire to stand out on the horizon, alone with our thoughts, to be a figure against the visual field around us.
This “fundamental American desire” — which is also, of course, a highly privileged desire, since only the very privileged can afford to do things safely on their own — is precisely what propels B., the severely confused and, why beat around the bush, frustratingly basic protagonist of Ruth Galm’s debut novel, Into The Valley, to flee a city toward a valley where “all the contradictions of the city might fall away.” This “fundamental American desire” is what propels B. to quit her comfy job as a secretary at a law firm in San Francisco and buy a blue Mustang and drive, alone, through a rural landscape that she imagines as a “stream of yellow and white and green with no signs of people.”
The year is 1967. San Francisco is becoming increasingly multiracial. B. knows “dimly” that she’ll “never go near another city again.” She doesn’t really know why. Race is not something she thinks about explicitly (she doesn’t have to, after all). She just knows that she feels a certain unsettling way in the city, particularly around “dirty young people,” as well as women who expose their legs, women who study science, activists, naked children, and people of color (in one scene, B. thinks the face of a black man on a wanted poster is “eerily African”). She no longer believes, as her mother taught her, that marriage is the answer to her confusions. She doesn’t know where to find an answer. So she tries to push all things confusing into her rear view mirror.
On the road B. tours an America dramatically unlike the one Kerouac toured ten years prior in On the Road. B. visits beauty parlours and pretty suburbs and national parks and eats hamburgers from gas stations and occasionally sleeps in motels with an alcoholic custodian, Daughtry, who loves her. Also, she robs banks. Daughtry teaches her how to do it — you forge checks and cash them, basically — and she gets hooked. B. doesn’t rob banks for the money, though; she robs banks for the “cool expansive feeling” it gives her. Robbing banks feels to her a bit like taking Xanax. And because she is confident, and because she is 30 and white and pretty, she doesn’t get caught. One cop even hits on her. (It takes B. a while to notice that his gestures are flirtatious. She’s as alienated from her sexuality as she is from her time and place).
“Bank” looks a lot like “blank,” and “blank” can mean “pure,” and “pure” can mean “white,” “white” “neutral,” and “neutral” “safe.” Such (obviously racist) ideological connections unconsciously structure B.’s core beliefs. Her flight from San Francisco is, for her, a hygienic flight from the filth, color and complexity of the urban toward the sterile, white, safe simplicity of the suburban. Clearly, then, her flight is doomed from the beginning — or should be, at least (more on this later). Yet she flies anyway. She seems unable to understand that she can want something that she can’t have, or, more confusingly, that she can want something because she can’t have it. B. is not very good with complexities or ambiguities or nuances or uncertainties. She can’t hold “two opposed ideas in mind at the same time,” while still retaining “the ability to function,” as F. Scott Fitzgerald famously argued is the “test of a first-rate intelligence.” She lacks negative capability. Her aforementioned unsettled feeling — which, by the way, is why in her mind she flees the city — is a problem without a name, but because she can’t tolerate uncertainty, she names it anyway: “the carsickness.”
This name is straightforwardly ironic, given that B. feels “carsick” outside her car. “The irony was that the carsickness had nothing to do with actually being in one.” B. just names her ineffable feeling “the carsickness” because she needs to name things in order to avoid uncertainty, and also because the symptoms are akin to those of actual carsickness:
It was the slightest spinning sensation gripping the back of her neck. Like a slow, pitched whine at the outer edge of her skull, behind her eyes, in the joints of her jaw. It was almost imperceptible at first, as if a small humming switch had been let on in her head. But it always grew…”
What triggers “the carsickness”? Multiracial spaces, feminism, difference, relativism — in a word, postmodernity. Though she herself is not aware of it, not even close, B.’s white flight is a flight from the uncertainties of postmodernity toward the certainties of modernity. “how much of / pilgrimage / is failure / to embrace where you are,” writes Heller Levison in her book Wrack Lariat (reviewed here). B., like many other white members of her zeitgeist, cannot embrace her cultural present, so she tries to pilgrimage back in time.
It make sense, then, that B. again and again remembers with painful nostalgia her mother, a figure who embodies a pre-postmodern, fashionably suppressed white American feminine ideal. This is an ideal that B. yearns to recollect and live by, as though it were a state of grace from which she has fallen. B. remembers fondly the day her mother sent her an embroidery kit: “‘There’s an order to things,’ she told B., ‘and I think it would help if you followed it.’” She remembers the day her mother “taught her the proper manner to sit in a skirt.” And so on. These and other similar memories evoke in B. a pleasant sensation not unlike the “cool expansive feeling” she feels when robbing banks.
By robbing banks, B. feels more blank, and by feeling more blank, she arguably feels more like herself: a blank person. B. not only lacks negative capability; she also lacks imagination. Naturally, then, it’s easier for her to desire a past which she can see in her head than a future which she can’t. In this way, Into The Valley explores the inexorable ties between lack of imagination and reactionary politics, ignorance and fear. Does this mean that Into The Valley is itself reactionary? Well, not insofar as its protagonist invites little sympathy. It’s far more intuitive to view B. harshly, with more brutal honesty than she views herself. As a result, one of the strengths of Into The Valley is that its protagonist, unlike the herds of protagonists from many if not most contemporary novels, is refreshingly not ‘relatable.’
Unfortunately, though, B.’s unrelatability is unintentional. How Galm shapes Into The Valley suggests, on the contrary, that she intended B. to be both relatable and sympathetic, more heroine than anti-heroine. Why else would Galm ultimately gift B. what she wants and needs in the end: an epiphany? In the final pages of Into The Valley, B. realizes how to deal conceptually with contradictions and complexity, how to hold two opposed ideas at the same time, while still retaining the ability to function, how to replace an either/or framework with both/and. “…the carsickness was the truth,” she realizes. “The truth that the dissonances were, in fact, irreconcilable.”
But B. shouldn’t get what she wants. Into the Valley would be stronger if its protagonist’s flight didn’t land successfully (or, to be more precise, somewhat successfully: the novel leaves some questions up in the air). In the novel, after all, B. not only flees the city for a whiter place. She also quits her job, robs banks, vaguely kidnaps a teen, and proposes to Daughtry and then abandons him. Disregarding the worrisome ideological implications of awarding success to a white character who flees a multiracial city to achieve some fantasy of deracination — “the desire to ‘get away from it all,’” writes Row, — it is, on the level of craft alone, unbelievable that a protagonist could burn so many bridges without setting herself on fire. Actually the most B. suffers in the end is a sunburn, nothing serious. That, and a cut on her foot. B. ends up fine, even better than where she began.
Galm’s debut novel could benefit from a dash of authorial cruelty.
Gavin Tomson‘s writing has appeared in Los Angeles Review of Books Quarterly Journal, National Post, Joyland, and Salon. He lives in Toronto. You can follow him @GavinTomson.