The dystopian future envisioned so darkly in Edan Lepucki’s chilling first novel doesn’t involve nuclear armageddon or zombies (Hollywood’s preferred method of annihilation). The world hasn’t ended in fire or ice — well, aside from the brutal winter storms that destroyed most of Ohio (sorry, Cleveland).
Disintegration of society has been slow, steady, irrevocable. Money, gas and oil are in short supply. Goods are limited, stores ransacked. Crime is rampant. The government has crumbled, and cities have become lawless centers of poverty and disorder. The wealthy enclose themselves in protected communities, where they pay dearly for safety. Everybody else hunkers down and hopes — or flees.
Frida and Cal, Lepucki’s young married protagonists, choose to flee, escaping the wreckage of Los Angeles — shuttered stores and restaurants, overgrown parks, people starving on the streets — for the wilderness beyond. “No freeways nearby, or any roads, really: Those had been left to rot years before.” They find a shed for shelter. They plant a garden. Cal tries his hand at building snares. Every few months a man in a cart shows up to barter goods, their lone connection to the outside world. They even meet a small family with children, the Millers, who live a few miles away.
After two years, Cal has grown to appreciate some parts of their lonely, primitive life (though he admits he misses books and sports, even the grating drone of talk radio). But the backbreaking work of staying alive has given him a valuable gift: “This was one of the things he loved about life out here. The space to consider questions. Even if he sometimes longed for mindless diversions, mostly he was grateful for the silence, the time.”
On the other hand, Frida remains restless. As the novel opens, she has discovered something momentous, something sure to change the status quo: She’s pregnant. And suddenly, the dangers of looking for other survivors in the neighborhood are outweighed by her desire to connect.
A staff writer for the online magazine The Millions and a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Program, Lepucki may be best known to viewers of Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report. In reporting the ongoing battle between Amazon and the Hachette Book Group, which includes Lepucki’s publisher Little, Brown, host Stephen Colbert urged viewers to preorder California from other sites because Amazon refused to allow preorders. His goal, he told viewers, was to put California on the bestseller lists.
Fortunately, California deserves a place there. It’s a swiftly paced, nerve-racking novel, one of those books that produces simultaneous desires: You want to keep plowing through it but dread what surprises Lepucki is going to spring. And you should. By keeping the fearful scenarios firmly rooted in reality, she makes California all the more unsettling. You don’t need zombies when you can so effectively remind us how hard we lean on the social order for peace of mind.
But Lepucki isn’t just singing the “It’s the End of the World as We Know It” blues. She uses this disturbing framework of a society without a safety net to examine our need for community and how we find solace in the presence of other people — even if their best interests are not ours. Frida and Cal stumble into a forbidding settlement a few days’ journey from their home, where they make a startling discovery. Initially, Frida is thrilled, and even wary Cal finds himself blossoming as he is drawn into the community’s inner circle. But troubling revelations pile up. The community can help keep them safe, but at what cost?
Despite its post-apocalyptic setting, California is also a shrewd exploration of a marriage; Lepucki astutely charts the ebb and flow of Frida and Cal’s relationship, which doesn’t necessarily grow stronger in the face of their isolation. They find themselves drifting, hiding secrets, nurturing resentments.
Cal is all contradictions: “He’d been a little relieved she was gone, actually. He felt exhausted by her, all her anger and questions. And yet, when he’d first turned over in bed and found her side of the mattress empty, it scared him. As far as he was concerned, Frida was the only person left in the world. He wasn’t being poetic; it was a fact.”
Faced with the knowledge Cal has lied to her by omission, Frida guards her own thoughts: “She hadn’t told Cal about her idea. It was another secret she deserved.” Moving into the settlement and finally interacting with other people further tests their faith in each other.
How far are we willing to go to protect the ones we love? What will we undertake to ensure our own safety and comfort? Frida and Cal stare down such questions, and the answers are not always what they — or we — would want to believe. Life is precious, Lepucki reminds us, and we’ll do just about anything to make it last.
Connie Ogle is the Miami Herald’s book editor.