New York, NY: Little, Brown, & Co. 389 pages. $26.00.
(Click on cover image to purchase)
Edan Lepucki’s debut novel California chooses a mighty theme, as Melville advises, namely an environmental breakdown. She might fall short of Melville’s power—don’t we all?—but in her case the failure’s interesting for how it’s linked to her considerable storytelling power.
Lepucki renders catastrophe all the more chilling by keeping it matter-of-fact:
The store, like so many others, was going out of business. When the first of them perished, it had seemed impossible. “A chain like that!” people had said. . . . The place had been ransacked. Frida still remembered the starkness of the floodlights; they ran on a generator in the corner, illuminating the remaining coves of products, which were jumbled together in plastic bins. The register was by the entrance and the girl who worked there accepted gold only, and not jewelry—it had to be melted down already.
In a winning passage like this, the mood is of clear-eyed elegy. Lepucki notes the stubborn hold of denial: “A chain like that!” She rations poetic effects, like those “remaining coves of products,” and her twenty-first-century collapse reverberates under our feet. The technology is commonplace and its primary setting, woodsy central California, lies no further from contemporary LA than a refugee couple can drive on a long-hoarded tank of gas. The reasons for the collapse prove nothing that would interest Hollywood, only familiar monsters: greed, sloth, anger. For this sober restraint in treating a subject that would render most writers hysterical, Lepucki deserves applause. Less compelling is the drama she imagines for the End of Days.
Among post-apocalyptic novels, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road stands as the preeminent recent iteration. McCarthy gives us a fable, an odyssey of the nameless, but his artistry risks simplicity. He strips The Road of social interaction, and does so without more than a glance at how things came to such a pass. Events in California, however, are driven by the human need to connect, and so what happens raises issues of shared culpability. Lepucki’s approach has more in common with Denis Johnson’s Fiskadero, Rick Moody’s “The Albertine Notes,” or even the final chapters of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, in which breakdown looms. California, like those fictions, depicts the community that follows catastrophe.
This community begins with Cal and Frida, a husband and wife not yet out of their twenties. They’ve fled “ransacked” Los Angeles in order to take up subsistence farming. As the point of view alternates between them, they prove largely sympathetic. Cal seems at first more suited to the hardscrabble, knowledgeable about farming and just plain smart, the graduate of an unusual school where students did without computers and worked the land (the model may be Deep Springs College). Frida, by contrast, hasn’t entirely emerged from the grief of losing her family, or quit the American delusion of “a painless life.” Her first reaction to the question that opens the book—has she gotten herself pregnant, here in the new wilderness?—is the same sort of denial she indulged in as an LA teenager: “She actually had thought geniuses were working to repair the world. Stupidity had protected her.”
Lepucki, however, not only upends expectation, but also parses out a few good surprises. One of the family Frida lost was her brother Micah, a partisan with “The Group,” an outfit that sprang up in protest against the growing divide between the very rich and the rest of us. First peaceable, then violent, the Group appears to have converted Micah into a suicide bomber, but then in another sort of bombshell, he turns up alive. He’s running a Group “Encampment” near the couple’s hovel. Micah claims this place is poles removed, ideologically, from the “Communities” of the wealthy one percent, but both sorts of habitats keep their perimeter armed and their population under surveillance. So Micah’s resurrection hardly makes him a Prince of Peace—and he does violence to what Lepucki’s trying to accomplish as well. As a character, the brother proves flimsy and improbable; his hidden study echoes with cackling villainy.
Lepucki’s plotting remains adept, though, as Cal and Frida try to strike the compromises necessary to join a society itself struggling to define its purpose. That struggle both carries us back to the unconventional college, where Micah and Cal were roommates, and tumbles us forward into further revelations about the Encampment. One of the most hair-raising concerns former neighbors of Frida and Cal, a family of four who appear to have committed group suicide. Again appearances prove deceiving, and cracks open in Cal’s veneer of Wilderness Savior. The husband is seduced by Micah’s power, and Frida begins to hoard in a new way, saving up secrets. Even in the shadow of apocalypse, loved ones go on lying to each other.
California suggests a Chinese box, with trompe l’oiel panels everywhere. Behind a number of those turns up something worthwhile; one of the Encampment settlers emerges as a rich secondary character. Still, Micah’s not the only problematic creation, and the tricky plotting winds up taking us further from the core tragedy. Regardless of how Lepucki keeps us turning pages, the crisis facing our planet remains. Our resources dwindle, our rapacity continues unabated, and any author who grapples with such material needs to deliver more than a (pretty) good read. Lepucki is dramatizing the nightmare scenario predicted by the recent Goddard Space Flight Center study: the inevitable violence between haves and have-nots. Her opening is genuinely engaged with that nightmare, but soon her recurring incidences of human dissembling do no more damage than they would in a world of abundance. Lepucki has the skill to spook, but her story never fully returns to that far more destructive lie, “a painless life.”