California by Edan Lepucki
Edan Lepucki’s California was destined for greatness. It’s the debut novel from a brilliant, funny writer. It’s a literary novel full of gorgeous prose. And it’s an apocalyptic thriller. It’s got all the right stuff. But California has received more attention than anyone probably expected. On the June 4th episode of The Colbert Report, Stephen Colbert and his guest, Sherman Alexie, railed against Amazon’s “scorched-Earth tactics” in its ongoing battle with Hachette. In particular, they criticized the way Hachette’s debut authors’ sales are being stifled now that their books can’t be pre-ordered on Amazon, something Colbert called a “death sentence for a new book.” So, based on Alexie’s glowing recommendation, Colbert worked out a deal with Powell’s Books to allow pre-orders of one debut novel directly from his website—and that book is California. This is incredibly good news for Edan Lepucki, and for many players in the publishing industry. It’s also great news for the reading public because California is a debut that genuinely deserves this spotlight.
The novel is set approximately forty years in the future, after a string of environmental and pandemic disasters have wreaked havoc on the United States—earthquakes in California, snowstorms in the Midwest, and a flu epidemic that cut the population of the Northeast in half, just to name a few. Though the novel’s promotional copy calls it “postapocalyptic,” I agree with Sherman Alexie that it is more accurately “mid-apocalyptic.” In cities overrun with violence, those with enough wealth have begun fleeing to exclusive, corporate-sponsored Communities where amenities and luxuries are hoarded to keep life comfortable for a select few.
Outside the Communities, gas prices have skyrocketed, no one has access to medicine, and the crime rate continues to increase. A revolutionary faction known as the Group—initially composed of college students with insurmountable debt—has set up their own encampment in Los Angeles, staging increasingly dangerous demonstrations to bring attention to their beliefs: “that money only poisoned people, that government was just bureaucracy, corruption, and oppression, that working wouldn’t save them, only engagement would.” Left with few options, but a decent amount of hope and a great deal of love between them, California’s young married protagonists, Cal and Frida, have packed up their belongings and left L.A., aiming to make a new home for themselves as far from human civilization as they can get.
Two difficult years later, living alone in their house in the woods, Cal and Frida exist in a space that they sometimes refer to as the “afterlife.” They’ve survived, but the extreme isolation has left its mark on each of them in different ways. Cal appreciates the “space to consider questions… the silence, the time,” but Frida longs for a connection to the outside world—a yearning that is heightened, we soon learn, because she is pregnant. Based on rumors they’ve heard about a heavily protected camp within a two-day walk, Frida convinces Cal that they must make the journey to find and connect with other people—no matter how much they might be risking.
By showing how characters relate to everyday objects in this “afterlife,” Lepucki fashions a strange, startling new world out of the mundane and familiar. Seemingly innocuous items turn out to hold great significance, like the brand-new turkey baster that Frida keeps hidden in a suitcase under her bed. It’s described in covetous detail—from its sleek, glass neck to the price tag still dangling from its butter-yellow bulb—and has clearly become a sort of talisman to her. The baster, like many other human-made objects, has been decontextualized in this wilderness. Its value resides not in its usefulness as a tool, but in its concealment—as something hidden, and therefore powerful. As Frida admires it, she thinks, “the secret of it had become as precious as the object itself.”
This tight focus, Lepucki’s exacting eye for detail, makes California a satisfying apocalyptic narrative. Throughout the novel, pedestrian objects take on grave importance to characters who have lost most of their possessions and have limited access to new ones—a plastic, butterfly-shaped child’s toy indicates a massive betrayal; a slim blue volume of Kant becomes the signifier of authority and power. In one beautifully written scene, Frida marvels at a simple box of Band-Aids:
Frida flipped open the tin’s lid. Inside, the Band-Aids behaved so well, lined up like school children. Already she was imagining plucking one out. It’s white wrapper thin as rice paper, and those tiny blue arrows at the top, OPEN HERE. How it would peel back so easily to reveal the Band-Aid itself, nestled flat inside. Frida’s stomach fluttered. She could have sucked on it. The salty, pretzel taste of wounds.
The transition into survival mode hasn’t been easy or comfortable for Frida, a feminist who “thought that the worse things got, the more women lost what they’d worked so hard to gain. No one cared about voting rights and equal pay because everyone was too busy lighting fires to stay warm and looking for food to stay alive.” In the woods, tasks are divided by gender: Frida forages for mushrooms and washes clothes in the nearby creek, while Cal does the heavy lifting and sets snares and traps for small animals. Roughing it comes a bit easier to Cal, who attended a two-year college that taught him useful survival skills. His desire to keep Frida and their unborn child safe outweighs any willingness he may have otherwise had to divide tasks fairly. “Yes,” he thinks, “they had to rely on an antiquated division of labor. And yes, she would be rescued first from a sinking ship. Wasn’t that a relief?” Later, Cal’s compulsion to protect his family intensifies in unexpected ways, threatening to unsettle the foundations of his relationship with Frida.
Lepucki’s touch is incredibly subtle in these moments, allowing us to alternately sympathize and become irritated with each character. She explores both Cal and Frida’s feelings about approaching parenthood with honesty, as they weigh the consequences of bringing a child into a world fraught with violence and hardship. She also knows the importance of a good secret—how even the tiniest bit of withheld information can cause a formidable rift between two people—and California is magnificently layered with them. In many ways, the heart of the novel resides in these large questions surrounding Cal and Frida’s relationship: whether you’re living alone in a shed in the woods, or in a comfortable apartment in a bustling city, is it ever easy to be in love? To be married? To spend your life with one other person? And can you (or should you) ever trust that person more than you trust yourself?
The strategic revelation of secrets is so important to California that it’s challenging to write a review without giving too much away. In my opinion, even the book’s jacket copy includes too many disclosures, but I’m a nut about avoiding spoilers. Much of its appeal resides in its ability to surprise. It is slightly unfortunate that, dependent on its structure, many secrets are revealed through dialogue rather than out-and-out action. But there’s enough suspenseful drama in the last fifty pages of the book to make up for its relatively quiet beginning. Whether you’re a fan of apocalyptic narratives, literary fiction, or both, California is much more than just a way to stick it to Amazon—it’s a skillfully-written, carefully-crafted, gasp-inducing novel that was set for the stars even before its “Colbert bump.”