Silicon Valley and the San Francisco Bay Area are often viewed by outsiders as this American economic oasis. Instead of being saddled with the McDonald’s, meth addicts, and motorhomes of the capitalism’s losers, Silicon Valley has made it — the king of the hill, top of the heap … well, you know the rest.
Not true, says Lavinia Ludlow’s second novel Single Stroke Seven. It returns to the same debauched, grimy, and sad Bay Area of her debut alt.punk, and it’s the Bay Area that I grew up in: a place of some of the worst economic inequality in America, a place where the well-heeled techies willfully ignore the serfs serving their bagels, cleaning their bathrooms, filing their HR papers, and playing their music in clubs that represent what nightlife and culture remains in GoogleVille and AppleTown.
Lilith, Single Stroke Seven’s protagonist, is one of those invisible Bay Area serfs. A gifted drummer in a go-nowhere band named Dissonanz, she’s maybe-okay-likely in love with her best friend, the band’s lead singer Duncan. The novel begins with a kick (sort of) in the nuts, with Lilith nearly castrating her meth-addicted co-worker at the bagel factory to fend off his unwanted advances. Somehow avoiding criminal charges, Lilith settles into a what-will-I-do-with-my-life spiral, bouncing between conflicts with her relentlessly critical mother and with Duncan’s crazy ex-girlfriend Lyz, who isn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer and wonders if the word “tortilla” has “one Y or two.”
Sharp, laugh-out-loud one-liners that would make a standup comedian proud are one of Single Stroke Seven’s strengths. In this one, Duncan tries to subvert the dominant paradigm with a prank in his dull, somnolent strip-malls-and-McMansions suburb:
Duncan tells me how he spent the afternoon calling every drug store on Yelp to ask if they sold bukkake wipes.
In what is essentially a coming-of-age comedy, Ludlow’s prose occasionally hits surprising emotional heights, especially when Lilith is allowed to take a breath between gross-out episodes of hijinks. In this passage, she articulates her feelings for Duncan, who at 27, is still living in his childhood bedroom:
I often wonder if I’ve made the right sacrifices to stay close to him — turning down opportunities to travel, play, and perform with the Santa Clara Vanguard, the San Jose Taiko group, and the San Francisco Symphony — but I’ve always had the innate fear that he might one day reach for me and I’d never know that I missed a chance to be with him. Nights like these abolish any regret I’ve ever felt for choosing him over a life on the road because here, in his childhood bedroom, I feel no desire to rise to anyone’s expectations, not even the 27 Club. Clutched in the bony chill of his arms and inhaling his breath laden with cigarettes and whiskey has always been enough.
Other times, the prose tries too hard. The reader is forced to reconcile Lilith’s many funny observations with duds like:
My jaw plummets so fast that I’m shocked it didn’t shatter again
[…] I’m clutching onto my mailbox cereal fantasy like it’s the last life vest on the Titanic.
Single Stroke Seven is also hyper-local, which was generally a positive for this reader but might leave those who don’t live or haven’t lived in the Bay Area in the dark. In this passage, Ludlow makes the distinction between traditional Riot Grrls and affluent South San Jose Riot Grrls, a distinction that presumes that the general reader 1.) is interested in indie music, and 2.) knows the difference between not just South San Jose and San Jose, but affluent South San Jose versus non-affluent South San Jose:
Back then, traditional Riot Grrls stood for female empowerment and “down with sexism” statements that they made through indie music, ’zines, and art, but the affluent South San Jose Riot Grrrls belonged to a new strain of “feminists.” They brought tornadoes of drama to the bars, picked fights with bouncers, chugged beer by the keg, and passed out on a bathroom floor until someone carried them home or called an ambulance.
Right when you expect the plot of Single Stroke Seven to rise, it flattens and circles itself. Lilith goes from bumming around at the bagel factory to bumming around as an HR admin, which seems to offer no more hope than any of her gigs. Ludlow is especially attuned to the
[…] modern serfdom’s vicious cycle: paying to commute to a job, earning the same whether he works an eight-hour shift or twenty-six, and competing against degreed professionals for minimum wage jobs whenever a major tech or manufacturing company lays off after an acquisition.
This social commentary on being among the forgotten in Silicon Valley makes Single Stroke Seven worth reading, even if Lilith’s quest to find a worthy home for her musical talents while resolving her feelings about a boy seems particularly small compared to the major social questions Ludlow brings up but does not fully address.