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A blurb from Janet Fitch graces the back cover of Dia Felix’s debut novel, Nochita—which seemed appropriate, at first. When I was a teenage fiend for fiction, Fitch’s White Oleander was a prime piece of evidence toward my conclusion that wild and beautifully damaged girls must sprout naturally from the soils of California. (Francesca Lia Block’s books were another.) In this glitzy-gritty, weatherless realm, youth equaled beauty equaled tragic backstory equaled effortless creativity. I lived in the Midwest; I wanted to go.
Going by a basic description, you could slot Nochita neatly into this micro-genre. The titular heroine is the child of a beloved New Age guru, and she grows up around Sacramento steeped in Kundalini yoga, meditation, and philosophy while remaining uncorrupted by mainstream standards of behavior and grooming. When her mother dies, however, she’s taken in by her distant dad and his bitchy fiancée. As she passes from childhood through adolescence she must navigate a world far less nurturing than the hippie bubble she grew up in, though she never quite sheds the uncanny aura of the feral child. She sleeps on the beach, she does downward dogs and drugs and various people as she pleases, she falls in with poets and strippers and a coterie of aging San Francisco drag queens.
But this is a weirder and better book than summary and setting can suggest. This novel’s California is unlikely to lure teen dreamers from Michigan; the darkness here is dingy and queasy, not glam and noir. Instead of inspiring wanderlust, it just makes you want to linger inside Felix’s prose. Nochita’s first-person voice succeeds astonishingly well at feeling like a real, live consciousness. We drift with it through just about every kind of event that can happen in a human mind: dreams, conversations, fantasies, meditations, drug trips. There is no “and then I woke up” to explicitly orient us in the wash of it all.
Such are Felix’s gifts that this seems like a sign of trust in her readers rather than willful obscurantism. Nochita’s ultra-appealing narration makes it easy to hold on even through the most experimental passages: her observations are startling, poetic but not precious, and often very funny. When it’s operating in a more naturalistic mode, the book has the ache and texture of life anywhere. Take the working-class wedding between two vitamin-popping self-help addicts, the bride getting ready in an RV while she badgers her tomboy stepdaughter into donning a face full of makeup. Or the much later development in which Nochita—who isn’t quite sure whether she likes the label “lesbian,” although it grows on her—falls for straight-ish party girl Anna, who makes her feel like “a hypnotized ape” with her “milky girlness.”
The book’s sprawl and dazzle seem formless for the first several very short chapters, but gradually the threads pull tighter and make the design clearer in retrospect. It’s a neat trick, and neater still that it doesn’t feel like one. Things do start to unravel a bit in the final third, but the failure to build to an entirely satisfying ending may come with the thematic territory. Kaia, Nochita’s guru mother, has trained her to see herself as part of the uniform substance of the universe and to inhabit each moment as it passes without judgment. “Soften to everything,” she instructs her followers. The fragmented episodes of the picaresque plot are tied together by an underlying emotional narrative: that of Nochita trying to balance her mother’s values with the need for self-preservation, feeling out the difference between softening and disintegration.
In this world of continual expansion and flow, maybe any ending is bound to seem a little arbitrary. On the other hand, my slight disappointment when the book stopped is also a function of just how willing I was to keep listening to Nochita. That’s the only downside of Felix’s choice to treat this material as a poetic novel rather than young-adult lit: little hope of a sequel.
By Dia Felix
City Lights/Sister Spit
Paperback, 9780872866126, 242 pp.