Book Reviews · 02/08/2021

Edendale by Jacquelyn Stolos

edendale.png
Creature Publishing, 2020

Edendale, the first novel from Jacquelyn Stolos, takes place in Los Angeles during wildfire season and follows four roommates as small transgressions escalate into unforgivable ones. It is a tale of environmental horror in every sense of the phrase, charting ecological collapse alongside the collapse of a social microclimate: as the friends’ dynamic warps under pressure, the cat falls ill, wildfires encroach, and coyotes are pushed from burning hills to neighborhood streets. The book brims with a kind of millennial ennui, training its attention on the noxious consequences of late-capitalism, student debt, sexual violence, and the environmental crisis. Edendale has been described as both feminist-horror and eco-horror, but it is also a work of neoliberal horror, especially interested in the protracted state of childhood that young people are forced into today.

The twenty and thirty-something roommates of Edendale look like children pretending to be adults. They play mancala, do puzzles, and explore beach caves together. Lyle wears his father’s too-big suit to work and fantasizes about sewing colorful robes for the household. “The four of them would billow around Edendale, shining like kings.” Megan, former nanny and current preschool teacher, is the only person ever shown cooking, and she approaches the task with the enthusiasm of a kid playing house. As things continue to go awry — her city on fire, the relationships in her household mutating — she teems with denial, magical thinking, and a longing to control the uncontrollable: “Aware that too much space made children anxious and wild, Megan kept her classroom partitioned . . . Megan also knew that she was the same kind of animal as her students.”

Like Megan, Ropey — the eldest roommate — seems mature at first glance, but he too is crammed inside a life he has outgrown. The reader meets Ropey as he withdraws his net worth from his account, fantasizing about running away with the bank teller. Indeed, for all his alleged indifference to material prosperity, Ropey is attracted to abundance, to women who are successful and confident and curvy: he loves the “wonderfully fat butt” of his manager, Lisa, and is repulsed by the scrawny desperation he associates with his roommate, Egypt. Of the four roommates, Ropey is the only one who initially appears to be free, aloft in imitations of Eastern-spirituality. He meditates and considers it “his duty as an enlightened human to listen, to find love in hate, to talk it out.” But his circumstances oppress him, too: he is in his thirties, possesses no door to his bedroom, and works as a bartender in a city with an ever-climbing cost of living. Indeed, his efforts to live freely often impede real freedom. His desire for Captain America — his cat — to live freely likewise poses new dangers, inspiring Ropey to let the cat roam a territory of highways and coyotes. In Ropey, Stolos exposes the snares of late-capitalism: the person who tries to get free of it will be trapped in a smaller cage.

Late-capitalism infects all the roommates’ psychologies, as all four are plagued by convictions of future money. In college, Megan visits the wealthy family of aspiring actress Egypt, then “spent the remainder of the summer dreaming of quality, of substance.” Someday, “she would be a person who owned very good knives.” Though raised in a lavish environment, Egypt is orphaned and poor by the time the book opens. While she jokes that her privileged upbringing ruined her personality, she has faith that she will be wealthy again someday. At a beach in Malibu, she says, “‘Let’s live out here when we’re rich.’” Her devoted boyfriend Lyle believes, without justification, that Egypt will earn a fortune as an actress. Toward the end of the novel, he visits an open-house, noting the quality of the furnishings.

Of course, he couldn’t buy [Egypt] a home in this city. He didn’t even make enough to rent the two of them a studio apartment. Desire for another, simpler life flickered through him. A suburban subdivision in the Midwest, a long, low, carpeted home where she could mope around all day believing that the reason for her discontent was because she’d never made it to LA.

Although all four roommates display juvenile tendencies, no one is quite as infantilized as Egypt, who is situated at the center of the narrative’s conflict. Throughout the book, she is described as brittle, small, and dependent, shown sleeping almost as often as she’s depicted conscious. She struggles with the demands of living in a body and a world, bewildered by the tasks at hand: how to have functional shoes, wear clothes, take a walk, or make a bed. She assumes little responsibility for her life and none for those around her, pampered when she does something wrong and disproportionately praised when she does something right. Lyle finances her, tolerates her flirtation with Ropey, and runs to her rescue whenever he has the chance. In one conversation, Egypt refers to herself as a woman, and Lyle bristles. “The word woman sounded ridiculous to him. Lyle thought of himself as boy and her as girl, picturing them as hairless twins curled together in a pink womb.” Later, when Egypt gets lost and calls him, he panics. “It wasn’t normal to be so worried about an adult in the world. But she wasn’t an adult. She was his fragile little rodent. His barely embodied angel.”

Egypt’s complicity in her own infantilization evidences another reality to which Stolos devotes her incisive authorial attention: the horrors of sexism. Edendale exposes the brutality of a culture that values the female body far more than it values the person herself. Like any good horror story, the novel also offers blood and guts, but most of the blood is menstrual, and the guts belong to a non-human animal. The novel is interested in the gore of a female body, the dread of failing as a caretaker, and the destruction of a domestic space.

Perhaps the most maddeningly and true-to-life aspect of Egypt’s unhappiness is that she does so little to change it. She claims that she wants to be an actress, but she hasn’t auditioned in a long time. “Instead, she’d been spending her lonely weekdays wandering the shaded rooms of the house, staving off headaches with spoonfuls of strawberry jam.” She claims to hate her financial dependence on Lyle, but takes few actions to remedy it. “She didn’t really have a job. She was scheduled to host a couple times a week at Little Wink and was the first called off when things were slow.” At Megan’s behest, Egypt creates an account on a babysitter network, but soon forgets about it. Egypt’s desolation results from her passive approach to her situations, not from the situations themselves: “Egypt held no illusions of control. The world would do what it wanted with her.”

Egypt isn’t interested in earning more money in large part because male attention is the only currency that she finds valuable. In the opening scene, she studies her reflection and imagines Lyle’s death until it finally makes her cry. Her first instinct is to remove her shirt “to see what she looked like mourning in her little green bra.” Right away, Edendale reveals a central truth about Egypt: she values her body more than she values herself. “‘You’re smiling,’” Egypt says to Ropey after he scolds her for being mean. “‘How am I terrible if you’re smiling?’” Later, she surprises Ropey at the restaurant where they both work. “His face lit with enthusiasm when he saw her. He liked her. It meant so much to be liked.” Egypt can’t “bear the thought of being looked at with anything but awe.”

Egypt’s obsession with her own sexual appeal powers much of her behavior throughout the book. Her complicity in her own subjugation is perhaps the most chilling consequence of the sexism she has internalized. Although the novel depicts many instances in which women are the arbiters of patriarchal values, it never blames the women, instead gesturing to another force at play, compelling the reader to consider what optimized sexism looks like.

In Megan and Egypt, the central female characters, Stolos conjures two familiar types, both of whom find antecedents in the Bible. Egypt performs Eve: the femme fatale who wields her sexual appeal to ruin good men, and whose appetite gets them both banished from Eden. Megan, a preschool teacher, performs the Virgin Mary: chaste, maternal, and competent. The other roommates are given crushes and sex, but Megan remains nearly asexual throughout; the only thing that ever sweeps her off her feet is the grocery store. When the cat of the house kills a bird and leaves it on Ropey’s pillow, Megan throws out his sheets, buys him new ones, and makes his bed. She reacts to Egypt as a mother would react to a troubled child, letting Egypt sleep beside her, rubbing her back, making her tea, and prescribing a plan to treat her unhappiness. As the fires progress around them, Megan “journaled neatly about the panic rising in her chest. It was all just so messy, so out of control. She wanted to go out there and put the fires out herself.” Eventually overburdened by the maternal work she has taken upon herself, Megan thinks of

all the vulnerable creatures of the world who needed her attention. It made her want to lie down on the asphalt and weep. She felt she could not do enough . . . She didn’t have enough good in her to be good to everyone.

Megan cares for everyone but herself; Egypt cares for no one but herself. Both identities deplete the characters and leave them with nothing but instructions written by men.

Stolos’ writing possesses too much psychological intelligence to suggest that women are the only ones who suffer from the patriarchy; the male characters are likewise burdened. Lyle is haunted by archetypes of the Provider, the Leader, the Savior. Early on, the book offers a perfect summary of his dynamic with Egypt: “She liked to be inconsolable. And this worked for him. He liked to console.” In Lyle’s introductory chapter, his boss gifts him an air purifier to filter the smoke. He imagines setting it up in the bungalow, the gratitude of his roommates. “Trumpets would trumpet. Oh Lyle, you hero, you man!

Filled with harrowing descriptions of the wildfire and its survivors, Edendale harnesses the environmental crisis as a dramatic weapon, and toward the end of the book, one wonders: is the environmental crisis meant to reflect the one between the roommates, or vice versa? In 2020, the year Edendale was published, California experienced its most destructive wildfire season on record, with over 4 million acres scorched — more than twice the previous record. One morning, Megan listens to talk radio on her drive to work. “ ‘We talk about climate change like it’s a future threat,’ said the expert from DC. ‘But look at California. It’s unlivable.’ ” Stolos doesn’t invent a crisis; she simply describes the one occurring in front of us. Edendale’s final scenes prompt an ecocritical reading of the novel as a whole, evoking humanity’s terrifying drive to invade, conquer, and deplete its only home.

For decades, Americans have been fed a steady diet of roommate sitcoms — Seinfeld, Friends, and New Girl, to name a few. These beloved comedies arise from the real conditions facing young adults today: extended cohabitation outside the nuclear family, densifying urban centers, the perils of the gig economy, and rising rent. In Edendale, Stolos uses familiar ingredients but discards the recipe, offering a compelling, suspenseful, and gruesomely realistic substitute. Like the crises that haunt this novel, Edendale’s final scenes shock the reader, but the most horrifying thing about them is their inevitability. Stolos’s debut announces her as a powerful ethnographer of our time.

+++

Jacquelyn Stolos is a writer living and teaching in Los Angeles. She holds an MFA in fiction from New York University where she was a Writers in the Public Schools Fellow. Jacquelyn has won fellowships to attend the New York State Summer Writers Institute, the Community of Writers, and the Bread Loaf Writers Conference. Her short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The Atticus Review, Conte Online, Bodega Magazine, No Tokens and more. Edendale is her first novel.

+

Tess Gunty holds an MFA in Creative Writing from NYU, where she was a Lillian Vernon Fellow. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Joyland, No Tokens, The Iowa Review, Flash, The Café Irreal, Notre Dame Magazine, The X Magazine, Peripheries, Shift, and elsewhere. It has also been read on NPR. She earned a BA in English from the University of Notre Dame, where she won the Ernest Sandeen Award for her poetry collection. In addition to writing, she works as a researcher and editor. She lives in Los Angeles, where she is working on a novel.