On the surface, California author Ruth Galm’s debut novel Into the Valley is a sidelong, Didion-esque glance into a 30-something woman’s unaccountable unraveling.

Beneath the surface, it is skillfully whispered social commentary.

Caught between the counterculture of late 1960s San Francisco and her mother’s conservative past, B. (as the main character calls herself) is inflicted with a strange malaise, one she calls “the carsickness,” which can only be soothed by cashing counterfeit checks. In desperation, B. drives aimlessly through the Central Valley, hoping that “its bareness would reveal something, provide an answer she had failed to acquire.”

The premise of Into the Valley does more than provide a pleasing nostalgia. (Ask yourself: When was the last time you wrote a physical check?) Galm’s B. finds comfort in bank lobbies, “the right angles of the teller windows, the teller’s movements like a soothingport de bras.” These precise, clean moments give her a “cool expansive feeling” and are set against the repeated mention of dirty fingernails and unwashed hair—the physical manifestations of B.’s mental deterioration. Galm, without ever directly saying so, is asking us if we, too, don’t feel dirtied by the present, inflicted with a nameless unease and an urgent desire to escape: “She wanted only to get away, to start over, to undo something that seemed to bind her. She wanted only to find a calm quiet place to breathe.”

Into the Valley is highly visual, suspenseful and appropriately grim, set in a landscape where spent sunflowers look “like a mass of defeated people.” Even if B. is traveling with no destination, Galm’s prose knows exactly where it’s going. Crisp and clear, it touches down lightly, like a small stone bounding down a scree slope. Showy, but without extraneous scenes or details, Into the Valley is a solid, muscular piece of writing.

Galm brings us back to the ’60s to show us how dystopian our present age is. The novel succeeds not by being a flashback to “the good old days,” but by being a hard-eyed look into the mirror of today: the impersonal nature of technology, our estrangement from the natural world, and the psychic consequences these things produce—even if we don’t realize it.

This review originally appeared in High Country News.

Into the Valley

By Ruth Galm

Soho Press

272 pages, $25