Reading California by Edan Lepucki

Another of my Interzone reviews, this from 2014.

Edan Lepucki, Little, Brown, 388pp

The publicity material for Edan Lepucki’s California suggests that if you love Cormac McCarthy’s The Road you will also love this novel, which is akin to saying that if one likes Veuve Clicquot, this can of own-brand cola is very similar. While McCarthy’s novel is a powerful and disturbing meditation on the will to survive when all seems lost, California is by contrast a trivial account of a couple trying to survive in a cabin in the forests of Northern California after the infrastructure of Los Angeles, California, the USA, finally collapses under the weight of one earthquake, one bad winter, one plague too many.

Frida, the focal character for the first part of the narrative, is maddeningly vague about the nature of the catastrophe. We know it took some time to happen, long enough for melted-down gold to become a viable currency (and we also know it took a year for Cal and Frida to save up to buy enough fuel to leave LA) but the truth is that Frida neither knows nor particularly cares. What started out as a romantic adventure has become tedious, possibly because Frida apparently sits at home all day while Cal sets traps and tends their vegetable plots. While Cal digs, Frida mourns the loss of capitalist goodies, represented by her cache of artefacts, including a Device that no longer functions (we infer this is some sort of tablet computer), a ripped shower cap and, bizarrely, a pristine turkey baster. She remembers with particularly deep affection the little pink clamshell case in which her contraceptive pills were kept, though perhaps everything we need to know about Frida is encapsulated in her naming her current existence the afterlife. While Cal is present in the moment, Frida is in hell.

While Frida, clearly not pioneer material, just wants to retreat to the 1950s and be looked after by her husband, Cal, the product of a small private college which taught Thoreauvian survival skills and values, has come to realise that self-reliance only works at the community level, but doesn’t really want to admit it as he rather likes the solitude. When Frida discovers she is pregnant, and becomes afraid that they won’t be able to deal with raising a child on their own, the couple finally look for other groups nearby and the nature of the story is such that they don’t have to look too hard (this is Calfornia, after all). Except, and this is one of the big revelations of the novel, the community doesn’t want children.

Much of the second half of the novel is devoted to unravelling the mystery of how this edict came into being, where the existing children went, and also the greater mystery of how the community continues to survive. Well, that, and for Frida, marvelling over the delights of more clothes, better shower facilities and the miraculous appearance of cooking ingredients (it suddenly turns out that she used to work as a commercial baker). For Cal, satisfaction comes in being finally able to put his horticultural skills to use now he has the right equipment and earning the respect of the community.

As a traditional science-fiction novel, California is incredibly unsatisfactory. The multiple natural disasters provide the flimiest accounting for the retreat to gated communities or to the land, depending on your previous economic circumstances – even in post-apocalyptic California, it’s all about the right neighbourhood – yet ask how any of this works and no sensible answer emerges. And if one chooses to read California as meta-sf, there are too many gaps in the background that cannot be easily explained away. It is difficult too to engage with the foreground narrative of a young and rather ordinary couple, making a rather poor fist of surviving in the wilderness while they try to face up to their own basic incompatibility, with an afterthought of a mystery tacked on.

One could choose to read the novel as a satire on the attitudes of genuine back-to-the-landers. Frida dreams about coffeeshop lattes, and is obsessed with ‘stuff’, while Cal, though he learned to set traps at college, can’t seem able to use his theoretical knowledge to avoid hunger. Yet I don’t think Lepucki intends this novel to be anything other than a perfectly straightforward attempt to imagine the struggles of a young couple in post-apocalyptic America.

And even that might have been interesting, had Lepucki gone into greater detail. Alas, her characters are psychologically two-dimensional, staying firmly on the page, voicing the thoughts their author has on their behalf. The only reason they haven’t already starved and been eaten by scavengers is authorial fiat, which keeps the novel moving long after it ought to have quietly crept into a hole and died