Book Review: California
by Edan Lepucki
Little Brown, 2014
Oh, what a world—what a world! In which debt-ridden college graduates suicide-bomb shopping malls; in which major cities and roadways crumble from disuse; and—wait for it—in which the United States is a savage wilderness, scoured by disease and apocalyptic weather. Among the survivors, the poor live like peasants, while the rich enjoy basic modernity in self-sustaining Communities. These are the mid-21st century horrors that debut novelist Edan Lepucki delivers in California.
Her story focuses on Calvin and Frida, a couple living in a shack in the wilds of Northern California. With civilization dialed back several hundred years, Cal must assume the role of hunter, and Frida, naturally, is the gatherer. Cutely enough, they still do many of the same things couples did before the world ended, like snipe at each other over trivialities, and keep pointless secrets for use in domestic power struggles. After two years in this situation, Cal and Frida probably could use a change. But before we rush into the breach, let’s enjoy some of the atmosphere that Lepucki churns early on:
[Frida] thought it would be easier once they arrived; she should have known better. The work didn’t end then; if anything, it got worse, and for months the exhaustion and fear tick-ticked in her body like a dealer shuffling cards. At night, the darkness gave her a skinned-alive feeling, and she longer for her old childhood bed. For a bed, period.
C’mon—what really took away electricity, technology, hygiene, and grande-skinny-vanilla-lattes? Lepucki, our tour guide, can only shrug. Maybe it was too much plastic in the environment. Maybe it was global warming times earthquakes plus an evil government. In California, knowing exactly what wrecked civilization isn’t nearly as important as how people might subsist on the refuse. Right?
Not so much. The narrative begins its myopic downward slide quickly, with the introduction of August, who travels through the woods trading junk from his mule-drawn buggy. He’s also black, wearing the “never-quite-faded desperation of a former addict.” This passage is preceded, in rather slovenly juxtaposition, by a conversation about how Cal sucks at hunting but still craves meat: “If only I could just stop wanting it…”
Whether Lepucki intends for her characters to be detestable hipsters or a sympathetic Every Couple is, perhaps to her credit, often hard to discern. To prove them sympathetic, however, we’d need evidence of the author’s supreme control over the prose. This passage kicks that hope screaming down the steps:
The first time Frida has seen [August] approach the shed, sitting high on his carriage like someone out of Victorian England, she had felt oddly homesick.
Frida, by the way, is from Los Angeles—though a Victorian stranded in 2050 would be a helluva better read. California is also padded like a four-poster princess bed with flashbacks. We learn all the hairy details about Frida’s terrorist brother, Micah, and their recently departed neighbors, the Millers, while our protagonists tip-toe toward something resembling a plot. In characterizing teenaged Frida, Lepucki admirably crawls behind the eyes of someone who doesn’t yet care about reality:
The world was already going to shit, but it had been going to shit for countless generations before her. Overpopulation, pollution, drought, disease, oil, terrorism: all of that existed in the background, in the distance. Frida never read the news. She was fifteen and stoned, and it didn’t matter if college wouldn’t be there because she could bake her way to adulthood. She would run a shop or be the head pastry chef at a restaurant…
But as these scenes begin to further shape this future, California becomes that much harder to swallow. Frida goes on to say that she “actually had thought geniuses were working to repair the world. Stupidity had protected her.” Let’s not worry about geniuses, and ask instead where are the survivalists and the anti-government militias who are actually—as you read these words—rooting for society to fall? By mid-century, gauging by Lepucki’s convenient pessimism, they’ll have simply vanished, along with all the passionate, inventive, philanthropic, and creative people who make life the minor hell it is today.
“What do you want me to say?” Frida eventually barks at Cal during their seventeenth argument. “You think we’re in one of those fantasy novels you read when you were little because you didn’t have any friends.” If only.
If only California was written with a fraction of the charm you’ll find in the average mass market fantasy novel. Instead, Lepucki trades in secret pregnancies, secret clans, and a faux-dedication to realism. Next time, maybe she’ll throw in a vampire.