It’s Only a Northern Song – An Introduction to the Novels of Josh Emmons

This month’s blog theme is ‘America’ – an excuse for us to celebrate the dizzying array of US writers published by 4th Estate (Franzen, Didion, Chabon, Oates and Eugenides among them).

Josh Emmons’s cult novels The Loss of Leon Meed and Prescription for a Superior Existence are published for the first time in the UK today, so to kick off our theme he’s written an introduction to the books, explaining how although they may seem quintessentially Californian, they wouldn’t exist without his Anglophile streak…

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‘Before introducing The Loss of Leon Meed and Prescription for a Superior Existence, I should mention where I’m from, a large and largely unpopulated stretch of northern California called Humboldt County. It’s an area full of natural beauty—a rugged coastline, rolling hills and evaporating rivers—and for the last fifty years has attracted dropouts and dreamers looking for a place to live cheaply and without fear of being ridiculed or ostracized. If it’s true that in the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king, then in Humboldt County everyone—and therefore no one—sticks out. Growing up there in the 1970s and ’80s, as the counterculture shrank from a revolution to a cottage industry, I accepted the imported Indian furniture, the loose clothing, the casual drug use, the crystals, the drum circles, the lavender scent, the free love, the lentil stews, the jug wine, the electric bluegrass, the Aquarius sunset, the bra-less women, the bearded men and the feral children all around me as normal.

My parents were too professionalized to really be part of the hippie movement—my father was a doctor and my mother a university professor—but their sympathies ran in that direction. They had met as twenty-year-olds at Abilene Christian College in Abilene, Texas, an evangelical school in a dry, hardpan city in one of America’s bleakest states, and then escaped to California’s Bay Area, where they started a small liberal church with Jesus Christ Superstar undertones. The church didn’t last long, and neither did the marriage, but before divorcing they moved up to Humboldt County because friends living on a quasi-commune there had told them it was a good place to raise kids.

The friends were right. My brothers, sister and I played on the windy beaches and explored the majestic Redwoods and had friends named Sequoia, although at some point I fell out of sync with the hair and optimism and preservative-free spirit, and I became, under the spell of the Beatles and Jane Austen and Merchant Ivory and Aston Martin and Monty Python and Savile Row and the Smiths, an Anglophile. I moved to England for a year in high school, then to London after college, and recently to Bath for a summer. In an ideal alternative version of my life, I was and remain a true son of Albion.

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In reality, though, my passport is American, and I’ve mostly lived in California, the setting of both of my novels. The first, The Loss of Leon Meed, grew out of an extended fever dream I had in my late twenties, wherein people I’d known as a child appeared to me in slightly altered form, dealing with the pitfalls and pit stops of adulthood. I was reading a lot of George Eliot at the time and wanted to produce a novel as complex and prismatic as Middlemarch, set in my hometown of Eureka, so I wrote sixty or seventy character sketches in hopes that they would interlock into a story that set various emotional dramas against the backdrop of small town politics. Most of these characters fit into the naturalist Eliot mold, but one, the titular Leon Meed, began to disappear and appear in random places all over town. Fantasy and magical realism weren’t important to me then—although I’d loved Midnight’s Children and The Satanic Verses, Love in the Time of Cholera seemed a better book to me than One Hundred Years of Solitude—so Leon Meed was a puzzling development. The more I wrote about him, however, the more I understood his purpose as the linchpin for the many characters circulating through his eponymous book.

My second novel, Prescription for a Superior Existence, grew out of an unhappy six months I once spent in Los Angeles. I’d followed a girlfriend there who immediately decamped for Taipei, leaving me broke and friendless and anxious about a future that turned out to be only slightly less dark than I feared at the time. I took the first job I could get, at a dubious book and jazz review magazine called Rapport, which paid nothing but promised valuable journalism experience. Every day I drove to Rapport’s smoky little office in Hollywood past a gleaming blue Scientology center on Sunset Boulevard, and every day I read the Scientology Center’s neon sign blinking a question: “Do you know who you are?” It seemed an absurd question—as Scientology seemed a transparent scam—yet one day, curious about how it attracted followers, I stopped and went inside. The only person at the Center, an intense young man in a suit working the reception desk, asked if I wanted to watch an informational film about the organization—“the church,” he corrected himself. I said, “When does it start?” He said, “Right now.” I wondered about the timing while following him into a 70-seat theatre, where a thirty-minute movie screened for me alone. I learned about Scientology’s labyrinthine hierarchy and the many countries around the world that recognized it as a religion—this point was made so emphatically that it was impossible not to think that the church protested too much—and I began to get nervous. No one knew I was there, and I didn’t have a cell phone with me. What if the church minions had already hidden my car and were planning to abduct me? I saw months of forced indoctrination, a kind of miserable Stockholm Syndrome setting in, after which I would be just like the young man in a suit who’d greeted me out front. It was a paranoid vision that didn’t come to pass, but it gave me an idea.

Prescription for a Superior Existence and The Loss of Leon Meed take place in a California that superficially and substantially resembles the actual one—a remarkable state threatened by cataclysmic earthquakes and droughts, yet blessed with a Mediterranean climate and improbable reserves of talent, both real and imagined—although their sensibility is arguably foreign and certainly informed by the British writers, musicians, artists, filmmakers and citizens I’ve known from afar and personally over the years. I’m delighted that British readers now have a chance to discover them, and I look forward to my next homecoming on your shores.’

Words by Josh Emmons.

Josh Emmons’s novels The Loss of Leon Meed and Prescription for a Superior Existence are published for the first time in the UK today.

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