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Hanging Loose

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The time is the mid-1970s, the place is Marin County, an affluent Bohemian suburb of San Francisco, the desired state of mind is ‘mellow’. And so the scene is set for a delicious comedy of manners, in which Kate and Harvey Holroyd struggle to embrace the new Zeitgeist.

Kate and Harvey and their friends aspire to transcend the rat race of traditional America’s values for a neighbourhood where the supermarkets sell organic tofu, the checkout girls warn you that white bread ‘kills your enzymes’, parents strive never to ‘come on like a parent figure’ and weddings are conducted in the open air by a minister in a purple ‘Let’s Get It On’ T-shirt. But they find themselves floundering, ambushed most frequently by the very language in which they attempt to make sense of their brave new world.

McFadden’s book began life as a serial in the Pacific Sun, the local newspaper serving San Francisco’s North Bay area – including Marin. I first encountered it when it was published here by Picador in 1980. The jargon of Californian psychobabble – sorry, ‘personal growth’ – had not insinuated itself into everyday discourse then, but McFadden was showing me the linguistic future. She saw how beguiling and irresistible it was, creating a new wordscape in which a dynamic fluidity of thought and feeling replaced static concepts and concrete nouns.

But while she ‘gets right behind’ this maddeningly abstract new vocabulary, she turns it back on itself to laugh-out-loud effect. Like the hang-glider who is on a gurney in Casualty because he has ‘hung too loose’, or my favourite: ‘Don’t take rejection as a sign of rejection’ (which I take pleasure in using as often as I can, though I had forgotten where it came from). The book is studded with wonderful moments of bathos, as when Harvey comes home to a hostile reception from the women of Kate’s consciousness-raising group. ‘Where are you coming from?’ one challenges hi

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The time is the mid-1970s, the place is Marin County, an affluent Bohemian suburb of San Francisco, the desired state of mind is ‘mellow’. And so the scene is set for a delicious comedy of manners, in which Kate and Harvey Holroyd struggle to embrace the new Zeitgeist.

Kate and Harvey and their friends aspire to transcend the rat race of traditional America’s values for a neighbourhood where the supermarkets sell organic tofu, the checkout girls warn you that white bread ‘kills your enzymes’, parents strive never to ‘come on like a parent figure’ and weddings are conducted in the open air by a minister in a purple ‘Let’s Get It On’ T-shirt. But they find themselves floundering, ambushed most frequently by the very language in which they attempt to make sense of their brave new world. McFadden’s book began life as a serial in the Pacific Sun, the local newspaper serving San Francisco’s North Bay area – including Marin. I first encountered it when it was published here by Picador in 1980. The jargon of Californian psychobabble – sorry, ‘personal growth’ – had not insinuated itself into everyday discourse then, but McFadden was showing me the linguistic future. She saw how beguiling and irresistible it was, creating a new wordscape in which a dynamic fluidity of thought and feeling replaced static concepts and concrete nouns. But while she ‘gets right behind’ this maddeningly abstract new vocabulary, she turns it back on itself to laugh-out-loud effect. Like the hang-glider who is on a gurney in Casualty because he has ‘hung too loose’, or my favourite: ‘Don’t take rejection as a sign of rejection’ (which I take pleasure in using as often as I can, though I had forgotten where it came from). The book is studded with wonderful moments of bathos, as when Harvey comes home to a hostile reception from the women of Kate’s consciousness-raising group. ‘Where are you coming from?’ one challenges his attitude. ‘ “I’m coming from the bank,” Harvey said. Nobody laughed.’ Ah yes, the bank. Because the Marin lifestyle (and that was still a time when the word ‘lifestyle’ was fresh and wondrous) is not cheap, and the menfolk commute into the heart of capitalist America to earn the means to pay for it. One night Harvey finds himself unwillingly in a fancy French restaurant and realizes he is out of his financial depth. ‘Doctors to the right of them. Doctors to the left of them. Into the valley of debt.’ Back in early 1980s’ Britain we were not used to identifying commodities by their brand names, but McFadden once again was showing us the future, capturing the moment when designer name-tags began to label the purchaser. I was baffled then, and still am, by some of them. What made Klips speakers so desirable, and why did Harvey’s bike have to be a Motobecane? Through the nebula of New Age speak hurtle the hard little meteorites of consumer desirables. But you have to have the right ones. The freedom-loving Marinites were helpless prisoners of ‘status anxiety’ decades before Alain de Botton defined the condition. Kate’s anguish over the right kind of dinner-party food – was ‘stuffing your own grape leaves’ now ‘decadent’? – is matched by her constant niggling unease that she’s not wearing the right clothes. It is tricky, after all, when ‘dress down’ could mean ‘anything from Marie Antoinette milkmaid from The Electric Poppy to bias-cut denims from Moody Blues’. If you find it a bit difficult, now, to visualize some of the styles, Tom Cervenak’s illustrations, like slightly out-of-focus black-and-white photographs, are a help. Marvel at the women’s long, flowing hair, peasant blouses and dungarees, and the men’s big-collared, fitted shirts, wide-lapelled jackets and high-waisted trousers. The novel’s 52 short chapters take us through a turbulent year. Kate and Harvey separate to ‘find their own space’. Harvey’s is on a waterbed with his uppity secretary Ms Murphy, unhappily sampling the new sexual freedom which seems almost de rigueur – certainly Kate would be most uncool to ‘lay a guilt trip on him’. She meanwhile joins a comically horrible commune. It’s all a disaster. Harvey ‘wigs out’ but Kate comes to the rescue, consoling him that ‘a nervous breakdown is just nature’s way of telling you you’ve freaked’. The book closes as it opens, with a Marin wedding – this time, strictly speaking, a ‘Celebration of Open Commitment’ – and Cyra McFadden is generous enough to leave her characters, and us, on an optimistic note. They’ll muddle through, they assure each other. After all, ‘it’s not the goal, it’s the journey’ – so just hang loose.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 2 © Karen Robinson 2004


About the contributor

Karen Robinson is the Supplements Editor of the Sunday Times. A recent trip to the West Coast of America confirmed the deadly accuracy of The Serial.

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