Edith Langley, the sharp-tongued first-person narrator of Golden Days, declares in its opening pages that this account of her friend Lorna Villanelle and herself “is the most important story in the Western World!” This brash assertion may provoke a skeptical smile, but by the end of this novel—Carolyn See’s fourth—the author’s potent combination of social satire and apocalyptic mythmaking compels the reader to feel the power of Edith’s claim.
Like a number of other contemporary novels and films, Golden Days dares to imagine the aftermath of worldwide nuclear war in considerable graphic detail. Whereas such works as On the Beach (novel, 1957; film, 1959), Testament (1983), and The Day After (1983) place the outbreak of such a war early in the narrative and concentrate grimly on the emotional and physical torment accompanying the event, See introduces the theme of the holocaust much more gradually and—here is the major surprise of the novel—optimistically. Ultimately, she leads the reader into a vision of a new golden age of human renewal in the scorched world of the 1990’s.
In the opening scene, Edith Langley remembers her experiences of 1980 as being part of “an entirely different world,” and as her memories move back and forth in time and a number of such bittersweet asides accumulate, it becomes increasingly clear that Edith has in fact lived through the holocaust. See keeps these reminders of Edith’s vantage point from a postholocaust future largely in the background throughout much of the narrative, for the novelist is ultimately less concerned with details of the holocaust experience itself (powerful and disturbing as those details are) than with the ways in which her characters’ lives can illuminate two other purposes: a satiric, feminist critique of the forces in post-World War II society that are leading to nuclear war, and a comic but heartening look at the resources for psychological and spiritual survival that can be salvaged from that destructive society. To accomplish these purposes, See allows Edith Langley to tell her own story—a story in which she moves from rags to riches to ashes to transcendence—and the reader becomes so entertained, so moved, and eventually so attached to Edith’s bizarre yet archetypal life that both her feminist critique and her triumphant survival ring emotionally true.
A first reading of Golden Days gives the impression that See wrote the novel in a rush, impelled by the urgency of her themes and by a determination to let her narrator’s experiences and speculations range with a feminine freedom, somewhat in the manner of Virginia Woolf, rather than to confine them in a more classically “masculine” plot. A closer look at See’s division of the book into three parts, however, reveals that the novel does have a highly effective structure that reinforces the concerns of each part and of the novel as a whole.
Part 1, the first five chapters, includes slightly more than half the book and covers the years from the spring of 1980, when Edith first returns to Los Angeles with her two daughters, Aurora and Denise, through the fall of 1986, when the city begins to respond to the certainty that a nuclear war which has started in Central America will soon spread to California. From the first page, Edith’s vernacular, sardonic candor sets a highly contemporary tone, for her marital and career setbacks have made her a cynical survivor who is now determined to be one of the powerful rather than the powerless. In the first chapter, See also makes a concentrated and cleverly double-edged use of highly traditional plot conventions. Like many a hero and heroine of nineteenth century British fiction, Edith begins the novel as an outsider, a member of the lower classes, but whereas it would take such a character in the works of Charles Dickens or William Makepeace Thackeray many years and hundreds of pages to realize his or her great expectations of rising in society, Edith gains considerable wealth and power within the first eight months and twenty pages. On the one hand, this success is highly satisfying both for Edith and for the reader, who enjoys identifying with her gutsy ingenuity. On the other, the speed and facility of Edith’s rise leads to a sense of underlying uneasiness, both in Edith and in the reader, that is central to See’s satiric purposes. According to Edith, Los Angeles in the early 1980’s was a place of widespread “personal chaos”—of great difficulty in trying to decide who to be and how to relate to others—that was exacerbated by the apparent lack of real businesses and careers. Los Angeles dealt in “intangibles”: driving around, Edith finds mainly “television stations or movie studios. . . or death factories where they made missiles, or think tanks where they thought them up.” In such a society, Edith discovers that the path to success lies in acts of willful self-creation. She encapsulates the way in which she became a financial adviser and newspaper columnist by saying, “I made myself up,” and throughout the novel she enjoys noting how other...