In some ways, Edan Lepucki’s debut novel, California, is the perfect sort of book to receive the once-in-a-career windfall attention that hers did after being featured by Stephen Colbert in his anti-Amazon campaign earlier this summer. Lepucki isn’t an ingénue fresh out of some MFA factory with a precocious collection of Tin House and n+1-approved short stories crafted in self-consciously twinkling prose. She does boast Iowa Writers’ Workshop credentials and has written for The Millions.
But California isn’t the type of novel that would have been doomed to fingernail-thin sales margins if not for a lucky break on Colbert. It’s proudly mid-list fiction, combining two of our time’s great obsessions: relationship politics and the apocalypse. Colbert and his followers just gave it a push.
The setting is almost a generation after a slow-motion apocalypse has ground the modern age into dust. Lepucki’s two narrators, a young couple who unhurriedly trade off chapters, remember some of the earlier age’s technological glories. They’re of the last generation that experienced things like broadband and daily showers and refrigeration. By their childhoods, the world was already collapsing. They just managed to be there for civilization’s dying embers.
A more naïve writer might have made us think that they were unlucky to have these memories, that the ones who follow them would be happier without that knowledge. But that’s not the way Lepucki plays it: There is a Dark Age on the wing, and it will be savage and bleak, not a return to some pre-modern Edenic state.
When California opens, Frida and Cal have decamped from Southern California for a cabin in the woods. Cities have by this point in the near future mostly succumbed to a one-two punch of freakish natural disasters that read like the last few slides in a frightened climatologist’s PowerPoint presentation, and a spree of suicide bombings from nihilistic performance-art terrorists. Frida remembers a “dying” Los Angeles, with its “chewed-up streets”, starvation, and crime where gold is the only viable currency.
It’s not entirely clear where the two of them have moved to and it doesn’t much matter. One of Lepucki’s gifts as a writer is how she envisions her characters’ narrowing of vision after setting up house in the wilderness. It just doesn’t matter anymore what state they are in or what year it is. What matters to them is the here and now; and exactly how boring surviving the post-apocalypse can be.
Frida is the first and more voluble of the narrators. As much as she remembers of the world before the long and seemingly unstoppable crackup, she misses it. A stunted half-adult who one imagines would have quickly succumbed to disease or privation without Cal’s survival skills, she pines for the lost world.
Nevertheless, she comprehends the sharp beauty of the wilderness they have dropped into as a respite from the chaos of the dimming world. It’s as though the flora and fauna were a blank slate to her, just something to ruminate on during all the hours of the day when there is just nothing to do: “They could name everything if they wanted to.” It wouldn’t be surprising if she one day just decided to lay down and give up.
Their life in the woods reads as much more interesting to Cal, who finds some relish in taking on the challenge. Whereas Frida was something of a dropout stoner, drifting in arrested development and altogether too wrapped up in the dramatic life of her over-performing brother Micah, Cal strives. He attended one of those high-concept back-to-basics little colleges where the students spent half their time debating philosophy and the other half tending fields and livestock.
The experience left him more prepared for the end of society than Frida (whom he met through Micah, a fellow student). But neither Cal or any of the characters who gradually start to populate California after he and Friday leave their home in the woods appear to know how to go about putting the world back together. Even Frida’s discovery that she’s pregnant leads only to more confusion. Little is ever resolved in this book.
Before reaching the halfway point, the back-and-forth of the protagonists’ relationship starts paying smaller dividends. Even so, when Lepucki introduces a rudimentary plot into the ambling narrative, it revolves too much around a third major character who never develops past a flat psychosis and a hard-to-swallow coincidence.
Like Chang-rae Lee’s recent post-post apocalypse novel, On Such a Full Sea, altogether too much occurs in California by happenstance. Lepucki shares Lee’s interest in lost characters trying to find their place in an ever-harsher world. Fortunately, her plain-spoken but insightful narration at least avoids his often ludicrously gothic filigree.
Lepucki throws a lot into the mix here, from the endtimes cults (which mirror the nihilistic creepiness those Tom Perrotta used in The Leftovers) to a Magnificent Seven-like confrontation between starving villagers, ravening barbarians, and some highly capable wanderers. Her prose is weighty, perceptive, and yet swift-paced.
Also, unlike some other writers in the same vein, her novel doesn’t come across as though she had just speed-read all the most fashionable post-The Road apocalyptic fiction. But California is still hard to grapple with. There is little here that manages to get its hooks into you. Some of that has to do with Lepucki’s spaced-out style. But it’s also her story. The fact that little happens from one chapter to the next isn’t the problem, it’s that the characters don’t have much invested in the outcome of one thing or another.
You would think that they might. End of the world and all.