Monday, August 18, 2014

Review: 'California' by Edan Lepucki


Post-apocalyptic fiction is a genre that has a lot more flexibility than it's given credit for. It typically involves some sort of disaster - nuclear warfare is a popular one - or the outbreak of something that decimates society. Zombies do a nice job of this, and for good reason: they tap into our fear of death, embody failure to contain an epidemic, and so on. But it's not often we get something more subtle and more immediately realistic than that.

Edan Lepucki's first novel, California, is refreshing in that regard. It certainly takes place in a world that is defined as dystopian - many people fend for themselves, like our protagonists Frida and Cal, while the rich hide in corporate-sponsored communities - but the reasons for it are less well-defined. There are hints of a simple collapse. The economy worsens, unemployment and inequality grow, violence escalates before finally peaking with a bombing credited to a group simply known as...The Group. There are no monsters, no pseudo-scientific explanation for the way things are. They just got worse, a line traced from our real world, until we find ourselves in California.

This premise - that we're reading about a world that very well could be - is the driving force behind California's enjoyment. The rest of the book is frustrating, and I mean that as complimentary as possible. Take the main characters of Frida and Cal, for instance. They're frustrating: their moods ebb and flow, so they're fighting one chapter and missing each other the next; they constantly keep secrets from each other; they're often on different sides of an argument.

But when you think about them within the context of the book, it makes sense. What if you lived in a world spiraling out of control? What if you suddenly left everything behind to live off the land in a deserted shack? What if the only regular human contact you had in your life was with one person, regardless of how much you loved them? Suddenly you begin to sympathize with them and their seemingly one-note frustration becomes layered.

The structure of the book also frustrates. We begin in the "modern day" and are told of past events through the characters' experience with them. There's little communication with the outside world, so what we learn about it is often incomplete, shrouded in mystery, sometimes complete guesses. We're at the edge of this world, standing on the beach while the only information we get is water lapping up on the shore, barely wetting our feet.

Again, thinking about it in the context of California, we're thrust into this world. Frida and Cal know very little, and so do we. They're living as best the can with what they have to go on, and we're struggling to keep up in the same way. They want answers to long-buried questions, and we want revelations as well: what exactly happened? How? When? Who were the major players, outside of the southern California scene that we have access to thanks to Frida and Cal's memories?

California is a seemingly simple book that gets more complicated upon reflection. Lepucki writes in a straightforward style that gives you upfront information about characters and surroundings, and she's very good in that regard. However, it doesn't hurt to give the novel a second read once you realize that the things you don't want to be feeling - mainly frustration - are exactly what draw you deeper into the book. By the end of the book you want something - a sequel, a prequel, a spinoff, anything - to fill in these gaps. Any time you can get readers to desire more of your work, you've done a good job.

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