I’ll admit it – I’m not reticent about jumping on the bandwagon sometimes, even if it’s just because someone says “Jump On!”. If I wasn’t, I would never have picked up Edan Lepucki’s post-apocalyptic story California, and that would have been a shame.
California was plucked out of relative obscurity when television personality/pundit Stephen Colbert crusaded against behemoth bookseller Amazon.com by extolling his viewers (and over 6 million Twitter followers) to buy Ms. Lepucki’s debut novel. California had been picked somewhat at random from the Hatchette canon (Hatchette being Amazon’s main target and Colbert’s own publisher) by Sherman Alexi, an author (The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian) whose works were also languishing from the bookselling spat. Stating that the conflict between Amazon and Hatchette “is toughest on young authors who are being published for the first time,” Mr. Colbert ensured that California would quickly became one of the most pre-ordered first novels in Hatchette’s history (Little, Brown and Company is part of the Hatchette stables).
While I don’t exactly consider myself to be part of the Colbert Nation, I’m not above sticking it to the man (well, kinda, sorta), especially when books are involved, and especially when new authors are suddenly thrust into the fairy tale spotlight. It took a while, but I finally was able to get my hands on a copy of California.
What I found was surprising and unexpected. Knowing that it was set in the not-so-distant future when the world-as-we-know-it is no more, I expected a book full of struggle-for-survival spine tinglers. Instead, California is much more low key than most post-apocalyptic stories; the emphasis is not on horror of environment, or threat from contagion or biology going off the rails. The young married couple at the center of the book, Frieda and Cal, are fairly secure, given the circumstances.
Those circumstances include an almost complete collapse of the world’s infrastructure (it’s telling that I don’t exactly remember the cause – that’s not what’s important in this book) and society’s response: the rich retreat behind the secured walls of newly established “Communities”, virtually untouched by scarcity and lack of amenities due to their huge reserves and access to technology, while the rest survive as best they can, scratching out a living or fleeing the crumbling cities which are now devoid of electricity, the internet and communications, running water, social services, central government. Then there is the radical element, a holdover from the militarization of the 99%-ers splinter groups, who vow a continuation of their campaign against the “haves” and the “have nots” by covertly working – sometimes artfully and sometimes violently – to break the status quo and level the playing field for all.
Frieda’s charismatic older brother, Micah, had been one such radical. Honed by the ideology embedded in the traditionalist, agrarian-based college he attended (where he was Cal’s roommate -that’s how Frieda and Cal met) and flamed by the fervor spouted by a shadowy organization known as “the Group”, Micah had violently sacrificed himself to the cause by becoming a suicide bomber, the first one in L.A. Losing a brother in such a way, to such a cause (which Frieda and Cal still believed in, although not embracing the Group’s methods), at such a cost made their choice to leave the crumbling city behind and take their chances in the wilderness an easy one to make.
Due to Cal’s training, Frieda’s down to earth nature, and their being deeply in love (at the very heart of this book is a love story), the couple found survival to be acceptable, even at times exhilarating. While most of their lives were dictated by necessity, they could still appreciate the life around them and lean on each other for support and companionship. Yet they had been alone for over two years, and isolation is not a normal human condition, so when they realize that they are not the only ones in this inner wilderness their curiosity leads them to seek out others who also are looking to find purchase in this new civilization. But will finding others protect them, or leave them more vulnerable?
The action in California unfolds slowly, simply, and the characters are far more “real” than deep or dramatic or riveting. Cal and Frieda feel authentic, and the times that they are at odds seem especially tragic due to this connection we can make to them. The confusions and misunderstandings that come about due to a lack of communication (or an unwillingness or inability to pry), and the danger of secrets – even for “safety’s sake” – are given an unique play in California, but they reverberate in each of our own experiences. It definitely is a book of similarities, which makes the differences that arise so much more jarring.
Even though California is set in a dystopian future, don’t expect terrible or terrorizing anomalies there, either. As with Emily St. John Mandel’s excellent 2014 novel, Station Eleven, which also shuns a typical post-apocalyptic scenario, there are no zombies or mutants or parasitic threats in California. The biggest threat is, and continues to be, humanity’s own attitude of entitlement, and how the perceived threat to home and family and freedom can be twisted to not only justify the means, but change the very definition of home and family, and convolute the value of freedom. The question then becomes not one of survival, but survival at what cost?
If I had one bone to pick with California, it would be the ending. After so many pages of a slow building of attachments and attitudes, it seemed like the ending wasn’t very rewarding and left quite a few questions in its wake. Although the larger story arcs were satisfied, there was a myriad of small ones left hanging, or in the worst cases were resolved but without adequate time to absorb and respond to them. Since those “small” story arcs are the most involving to the reader, this lack gave a feeling of deficiency to the ending. It’s not that the writing was rushed, really, but with the meandering pace of the earlier chapters, the conclusion had a definite sense of being incomplete (without a hint of a sequel, which also would have felt off base).
Still, California got under my skin. As with the final section in David Mitchell’s masterful novel The Bone Clocks, this is a vision of the future that feels uncomfortably plausible, which is in and of itself lends a undercurrent of terror to the book. There is no real sense of fear in turning the next page, but there is small hope, either. Yet still, we are compelled to turn that next page. Because, no matter how small, there is always hope, if not for us, then for what will – if we are lucky – come after, once the price is paid.