California by Edan Lepucki (2014)

This post was written by my husband. The book was one we both read and enjoyed greatly last summer and he re-read this past week in preparation for teaching the novel in his Dystopian Literature class. His remarks follow.

Attention was first brought to Edan Lepucki’s first novel during Stephen Colbert’s campaign against, as he encouraged viewers of the sadly defunct Colbert Rapport to buy California from their local independent bookseller, thus robbing Amazon of sales in the midst of their feud with publisher Hatchette. And so it was that Lepucki’s tale of a young couple seeking survival and the possibility of a future in a world torn apart by economic collapse, societal upheaval, and environmental calamity became a bestseller.

This footnote on the publication history of the novel, perhaps unfortunately, affects my take on the book. The novel, on its own merits and aside from any pre-publication-Colbert-driven hype, fits into the sub-genre of speculative fiction that is marked by master works like Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower (as well as the other two books in the Earthseed trilogy) and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. These are books that employ what the writer Mike Davis has called “disciplined extrapolation” to imagine a realistic fall of American civilization. Lepucki’s effort in California does not match the quality of The Road, but we would certainly never ask a first novel to compete with the mature work of a canonical American novelist. Yet, the hype has unquestionably placed California in a position to deliver on heightened expectations, and in so many ways, Edan Lepucki’s work succeeds in spite of its relative immaturity.

Like Butler and McCarthy, Lepucki describes the fall indirectly, through the side-view mirrors of her protagonists, Cal and Frida. There are no long, detailed passages of crumble and decay. Instead, we get glimpses of how our way of life has died through brief flashes of memory. Hurricanes and extreme instances of polar-vortex-”snowpocalypse” have crushed the population centers of the Eastern Seaboard and Mid-west. Drought, economic crisis, and resource inequality have shredded California into grimy cities where the 99 percent fight for scraps and “Communities” where the wealthy live in comfort and isolation. We are given to believe that such a dispersion of the American culture has occurred nationwide. This is much of the appeal of the book for contemporary readers; it pushes the current events of the past eight years to their logical, if extreme, endpoints. Set against the multiple crises is the rise of “The Group,” which is a likewise “disciplined extrapolation” of the Occupy Movement, a protest group that begins with dramatic, playful acts of civil disruption but that shifts to more violent acts of terrorism. Lepucki, like the aforementioned writers, takes a risk in presenting something so vast as the collapse of our very way of life–everything from the mindless entertainment and plentiful junk food that we take so much for granted to the governmental structures of infrastructure and security–merely as the setting for her young couple. And ultimately, this presentation feels quite contemporary, an expression of the so-called millenial self-absorption. The fall of the world occurs as something that happened while we were getting high and posting food pics on Instagram. This simultaneously impressed and bothered me about the novel.

We meet Cal and Frida hiding out somewhere in the woods of central California, in a ramshackle house eating homegrown beets and not much else. Cal, toughened by his student years at the unique Plank College (based on real-life Deep Springs College) where studies in philosophy are paired with the operation of working farm, sees the beauty in their new life away from Los Angeles, but Frida, who realizes she is newly pregnant, feels their isolation more sharply. They have carved out a hard life in the woods, though the loss of a nearby family has returned them to the feelings of insecurity and helplessness that they felt in Los Angeles. Their only contact is the mysterious August, who brings oddball items for trade as he makes monthly rounds with his mule-drawn junk cart. Under these conditions, the couple decides to explore beyond their woodsy territory, into the emptiness of the Central Valley, where they encounter a settlement surrounded by a maze of strange, sculptural “Forms,” made of piles of once-common objects shaped into spikes by wrappings of barbed wire and chain-link fencing.

Cal and Frida find in this community of settlers, called The Land by its inhabitants, a shocking secret. A man well-known to both of them, someone they believed to be dead, is alive and well and leading The Land in its Plank-esque work program. Both Cal and Frida adjust to living in this community of people shell-shocked from their necessary adaptation to a harsh new world, but what they gain in regular meals, security, and relative comforts, they begin to lose in their own mutual trust and intimacy. The leader of The Land is secretive and, we come to learn, has big plans for Cal and Frida and the baby that will be born into this uncertain life. Lepucki’s portrayal of people faced with the necessity of rebuilding from the junk and the bones and the ashes of world we all took for granted is powerful and moving, but it feels, at times, frustratingly small, focused as it is so laser-like on Cal and Frida. And Cal and Frida, even in the empty openness of the fallen world, are frustratingly hemmed into a future that is controlled by their past.


Jacket art for the novel.


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