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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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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