California by Edan Lepucki
Edan Lepucki's post-apocalyptic debut novel, California was on the docket this past week. It's the near future, society has completely collapsed, and Frida and Cal have been eking out a meager existence somewhere in the wilds east of Los Angeles. We are offered glimpses of super-storms wiping out entire states, pandemics, & massive earthquakes that seem to have destroyed everything familiar. The wealthy elite (ie: the 1%-ers) have created isolated islands of safety zone Communities around the country, only allowing in those who can pay for the privilege. Frida and Cal are not so lucky and living amongst the chaos and urban decay of L.A. eventually became too precarious. So the young married couple decided to strike out on their own, far from anyone else - into the "afterlife," as Frida calls it.
When Frida figures out that she is pregnant, however, priorities change and perceptions of the world around them alter. Is this solitary existence enough of a world to raise a child in? Is it safe enough? Wouldn't it be better around other people, wherever they are? (There really are not a lot of people anymore, it would seem, and the couple has only encountered five in the two years they've been living in the wilderness.) So they decide to strike out once more, in search of the rumor of a nearby settlement of some of the ragged remnants of humanity. What they eventually find there is altogether unexpected, comfortably utopian, and completely terrifying.
I can't decide if I really liked this novel, I'll be honest. The set-up was great - I love the mystery of the world-at-large, how did things fall apart, how did we get to where we are - where are Frida and Cal, anyway? Lepucki keeps the fucked-up urban apocalypse of Cal and Frida's past at an arm's length, which only adds tension to their situation - which I appreciated. But Frida seems a bit slow on the uptake at times, which I found distracting. For example: yes, Frida, the color red seems to weirdly be a problem for, like, half of the people you've met. There might be something to that, so pay attention. Maybe that's it - considering the situation, she doesn't seem to pay much attention to, well, anything. Once they are temporarily accepted into a group of fellow survivors, she seems relatively ignorant of people's perceptions of their situation, the importance of Cal's new status (or hers, for that matter) in the community, and how precarious their general existence is. All of which I found annoying. And the degradation (or not?) of her relationship with Cal seems like a forced-through afterthought to me. Once the pair begin interacting with this new community, lies and deception abound between them - and in places I didn't find to be particularly plausible for a married couple who just survived the apocalypse together. Maybe this can be chalked up to Frida's inattention again, but I'm not so sure. Then again, having that marital strife tends to build the tension in their situation to excruciating levels, so maybe it is valid. Maybe I just didn't like Cal or Frida and thus didn't really care what they did or what happened to them? Sigh...
It could be that I'm just a jerk. This is a perfectly fine novel. Lepucki's alternating narratives between Cal and Frida offer interesting perspectives on their situation, despite issues of believability. And her prose is rather sharp and vivid throughout - as far as world-building goes. It just felt to me as if the potential for a groundbreaking post-apocalyptic novel was there, tantalizingly close to the author's fingertips, but it all sort of crumbled as the story progressed. I bought it all at the outset, but the more I got to know everyone, the less I believed anything. If the characters can't hold it together long enough to make me believe while my eyes are on the page, well then....
From the June 1 New York Times Book Review. Art by Robert Sikoryak