Instead of a sudden apocalypse, the world is suffering a slow, gradual collapse in Lepucki’s debut novel, the vaguely titled CALIFORNIA (is it a travel guide? a state history? at least the cover is beautifully disorienting).
It’s ambitious, intriguing, and frequently maddening. It’s THE WALKING DEAD by way of Emily Gould, sans zombies.
In the not-too-distant future, thanks to a variety of off-screen eco (-logic and -nomic) disasters, Los Angeles has decayed into a state of lawless chaos. “I can’t stand how awful everything is here,” says Cal, a young academic. His wife, Frida, agrees:
Because she understood, Frida didn’t ask him to elaborate. He could have meant L.A.’s chewed-up streets or its shuttered stores and its sagging houses. All those dead lawns. Or maybe he meant the closed movie theaters and restaurants, and the parks growing wild in their abandonment. Or its people starving on the sidewalks, covered in piss and crying out.
Desperate, Cal and Frida flee Los Angeles for the California wilderness, where they settle in an abandoned shack. They survive off the land, thanks to Cal’s resourcefulness and Frida’s culinary knowledge.
Cal thinks they can remain post-apocalyptic pioneers forever, but Frida wants to continue exploring, to find other homesteaders like themselves who survived society’s collapse. It’s just one of about 800 things Cal and Frida disagree on, and if you keep score at home, Cal is right 799 times, but more on that later.
Turns out, they aren’t alone in the wilderness. A few miles east, giant metallic spikes made of found objects rise out of the earth. Are they a sign of new civilization? Or a warning to keep away?
A far as high-concept premises go, it’s a great hook. Lepucki knows how to ask interesting questions. She’s good at compelling us to explore the world she’s built. Unfortunately, CALIFORNIA only devotes about 10% of its pages to adventure and exploration, preferring to delay, digress, and withhold detailed world-building information.
Another 30% consists of wildly tangential flashbacks to Cal and Frida’s lives before the collapse of civilization, while the final 60%–the bulk of the book–is a series of spoken and unspoken arguments between Cal and Frida, ranging from the mundane (turkey basters) to the existential (“Should we bring a child into a world like this?”).
While the latter kinds of questions are certainly ripe for narrative exploration, far too often CALIFORNIA dwells on the former, with Cal and Frida’s positions almost always falling into clichéd gender roles, i.e., the rational male and the emotional female.
Conflict is vital to fiction. So why does the dichotomy between Cal and Frida’s perspectives feel stretched so thin over these 400 pages?
Perhaps it’s an issue of expectation. Given the book’s premise, one wouldn’t expect a slow-paced examination of the difficulties of marriage that uses the apocalypse as a backdrop without adding anything new or unexpected to the genre.