Fame isn’t necessarily a good thing, with its high-beam spotlight of attention and expectation. Debut author Edan Lepucki may have, as The New York Times put it, “won the literary Lotto” when television host Stephen Colbert urged viewers to pre-order her novel “California” — and a tsunami of requests rolled in. But the pitch, a call for support of Hachette publishing group authors against online giant Amazon, wasn’t an unalloyed win. Instead, it has subjected this modest post-apocalyptic tale to intense scrutiny.
Lepucki’s “California” travels extremely well-trodden territory. Authors from Cormac McCarthy to Carolyn See have wandered through the “what if” of a future dystopia. In particular the American West, once the home of our national aspirations, has become a favorite setting. In this take, as is standard in such books, we find ourselves in a vague near future in which the social structures we accept as normal — a functioning economy with food and electricity, a government that enforces laws — have disappeared. This time out, the cause of the decline is unclear, although natural disasters, possibly the result of climate change, are mentioned.
When we meet Cal and Frida, the protagonists, they have fled a nonfunctional, decaying Los Angeles for the wilderness up north. As we learn through their alternating narratives, this “stretch of green” promises a new start — in addition to scarcity and crime, the young married couple seek to leave behind personal crises. For both, that includes the shame and mourning prompted by the death of Frida’s brother. In flashbacks, the pair recall Micah, a charismatic activist-turned-suicide bomber who had been Cal’s college roommate and had introduced the couple.
As the book opens, the couple seem to have made their escape and are scraping by, gardening and gathering, when Frida realizes that she may be pregnant. This prompts the two to leave their homestead in search of other survivors. Through an itinerant trader, they have learned of a nearby settlement, someplace that sounds more open and accepting than the guarded, planned “Communities” where the wealthy have holed up, hoarding resources. What they find is far from idyllic.
At first, Lepucki’s protagonists are easy to like. Happy despite their hardships, Cal and Frida are enthusiastic young lovers. The few secrets they have from each other — Frida hides keepsakes from their old life — seem harmless. If either appears naive, it’s an innocent flaw. Even when faced with a seemingly scary object — the giant, sculptural Spikes that appear in the wilderness — Frida reacts positively. She sees them as “magnificent, creative and daring,” even as she acknowledges that Cal would say “she had too much faith in people and in their capacity for joy and art.”
He has a point, and once the two begin their new communal life, Frida, in particular, will find her preconceptions challenged. Even the couple’s relationship, their bedrock, will be shaken.
That’s where the problems begin, as Lepucki shifts her focus from the pair’s loss of innocence to a more traditional cautionary tale. We may lose our society, she and many others before her want to warn us, but we will hang onto the worst parts of ourselves: our desire for hierarchies, our greed, and our fears.
To make this point, Lepucki splinters her narrative. For too long, she maintains Frida’s innocence, making the mother-to-be annoyingly childish in her refusal to talk to her husband. Cal, meanwhile, becomes drawn into the all-male ruling cabal and also stops communicating. The only character who speaks freely is Anika, a settler who befriends Frida and who slowly reveals the settlement’s bloody past. The result is episodic and at times forced, as if the author ran into problems reaching her desired, and admittedly chilling, ending. It’s a rookie mistake in a mostly solid first book — but one that doesn’t bear up well under close study.