BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
The Hideout, Chicago’s 100-year-old venue for “music, poetry, art, performance, rock, and rebellion” as devotees report, was the scene for a debut novel’s stunning local welcome. Author Meredith Westgate, the newest member of the multi-talented Mathias family, recently proved that this Chicago family continues holding its own in the arts. (In case you were wondering, she packed the porch of the storied hangout.)
During the event, Westgate read from her August-released novel, The Shimmering State, named one of Vogue’s best summer books. Set in Los Angeles, the book shimmers like its title and challenges how we look at memory: What if core memories could be removed—the traumas and the delights? What if on top of this clean slate, other memories, outside memories, could be introduced?
The novel imagines this intriguing possible, creating a world and science of its own, rebuilding memories with the aid of a magic gel called memoroxin that targets the medical management of Alzheimer’s, PTSD, schizophrenia, and other mental disorders having a direct link to memory, all set in a fictional center in Malibu.
The center’s enterprising doctor explains: “Extraction and reimplementation, followed by continuous exposure to one’s own memories, is the only one treatment we have found successful. We must starve the lingering consciousness of fuel, or anything to latch on to, until eventually the last remnants of its grip fade away.”
When it came to choosing the title for her premiere work, Westgate, a Dartmouth College graduate who holds an MFA in fiction from The New School, was inspired by a quote from Joan Didion: “The world seemed to shimmer around the edges.”
She elaborates, “I wanted the book to have that illusive quality, like a flash of memory, often surreal and uncertain. The mind is so fragile but it has to move forward. Lucien, one of my main characters, is just struggling to leave his house.”
She begins the novel with a quote from that memory maven, Marcel Proust, with no hint of a tea-soaked madeleine: “The only true voyage, the only bath in the Fountain of Youth, would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to see the universe through the ideas of another, of a hundred others, to see the hundred universes that each of them sees, that each of them is.”
Westgate, who is currently working on adapting the novel for television, says that writing a book is “always about language—that’s the way into a story.” Although she’s living in Brooklyn now, she spent three years in Los Angeles: “So many of the LA novels are set just on the beach of at a magical party in the Hollywood hills. I wanted the landscape to change with my characters across the city.”
For the Hideout reading, Westgate chose a chapter that takes the reader around the City of Angels. An earlier scene drops the lead female character, a dancer positioned to take the lead in La Sylphide, in a #MeToo moment as a cocktail waitress at Chateau Marmont with a producer named Ray Delaney.
We loved the city details she captured, such as the macrobiotic mini chain in Venice called Café Gratitude where menu items come as bold mantras, as in this case, to make one gracious: “kale pesto kelp noodles, extra cashew cheese and a side of kimchi with blue spirulina lemonade.”
And the ever-present harsher moments of reality: characters look up to a TV screen where “wildfires have been hopping the freeways again in Ventura towards Santa Barbara and the Santa Ana winds responsible for them have been pushing smoke to LA, casting a silk screen behind the nearest buildings. Wealthy celebrities pop in an out of the coverage praying from their properties. One even brings up his private vineyard, now in the path of the flames. His priceless film memorabilia.”
Westgate treats memory as a complicated process. “One thing I have learned in getting so close to memory in my writing is that the practice of empathy is truly important,” she says. “Remember the miscommunications and misunderstandings we have experienced. I am thinking of Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes when the character contends with his past. Someone might be mad at another person forever because they didn’t show up when in fact they didn’t get the invitation.
“We should have an openness around our memory. Memory is a constantly evolving piece of our own narrative. We should all learn to be gentle with ourselves and our collection of memories. Whether they are painful or happy, they are all an accumulation,” she shares.
Married to Teddy Mathias, who has his own design firm in Brooklyn, Westgate brings her own artistic and writing skills to this notably artistic family. She taught at Parsons School of Design and studied art and design as an undergraduate, focusing on visual media and dance before delving deep into writing.
Of this journey into the medium and subsequently her stellar debut, she says, “I have spent many years re-envisioning my novel. At first there were five main characters, and now there are two. That was my biggest change. I always wanted to have it set in LA, which is so full of entertainment and allure. There are all of the facades and the wellness trends, a great backdrop for the story. I wanted to play with the timeline and thus build tension. I changed it to the present tense which made a lot of difference.
“At one point I was frustrated and took two months off and didn’t look at it. I would recommend authors might want to step back for a period and refresh,” she offers. “Being an author is such a solitary world necessarily. I am getting ready to pitch the plot on the TV show, and it is all about collaboration.”
In the spirit of collaboration and community, we asked Julie Mathias, a former muralist known for a dazzling sense of color on the large canvases she paints and wife of John Mathias, to update us on the rest of the busy family: “Alice is producing and directing comedy television. Marian has just finished shooting and directing her first feature length film, which is now in post-production. Peter works in the venture capital arm of Bertelsmann, an international media company. Johnny is with Apple in Los Angeles and is currently working with his brothers on a new album with their band.”
Westgate proves with Shimmering State that she found not only her perfect medium but also her perfect family fit in the intrepid Mathias clan.