Edan Lepucki’s first novel, California, has made headlines this summer as a bizarre “collateral victory” in the Amazon vs. Hachette wars. Heavily promoted by Stephan Colbert and Sherman Alexie, Lepucki’s novel debuted at #3 on the New York Times Bestsellers List earlier this summer. Like everything else I seem to be reading this summer, California is a novel about two people (Cal and Frida) struggling to survive in a dystopic near future West, ravaged by crashing economies, growing wealth disparities, and climactic disturbance.
What kind of future-present does California give its readers to inhabit? As for describing the wrathful demons that bring about the apocalypse, California is a bit blase. Climate change. Neoliberal economics. Growing income disparities. In this sense the book is a pretty conventional post 1980 dystopia. The landscape is characterized by broken streets, cities, and homicidal or desperate humans… like many other dystopias. Its lurid descriptions are heavy-handed and derivative.
But if the landscape and the causes of dystopia are conventional to the extreme, the focus of the social concern, if you’re reading for it, is more interesting. Running throughout the novel, and central to its plot, is the interesting development in the relations between men and women, masculinity and femininity, that play out between the various characters who have fled the ruins of civilization to start a new town on “the Land.”
Like in The Walking Dead, where the post-zombie-apocalypse leaders are all infallibly white men with thick (if faked) Southern accents, the apocalypse in California has further consolidated power in the hands of strongmen. The end of civilization may have wiped out cities, nations, and ecosystems, but antiquated, masculinist ideologies are thriving. The women may gather, may clean, may cook, but its the men who hunt, defend, and build. It’s the men with the guns, the outside information, and the power to call the shots.
Survivalist narratives often unconsciously venerate traditionally defined masculine traits (fierceness, physical strength, rationality) to celebrate life’s tenacity in the face of adversity. But Lepucki’s novel questions the value of these ideas through the mysterious working of “the Land” and its band of Good ol’ Boy leaders. Two of the leaders, Micah and Cal, attended an all male alternative college where the ideas of self-sufficiency, physical strength, and intellectual curiosity were drilled into them via Thoreau, Kant, and other “Famous Words by Famous Dead (white) Men.”
In a hard world, Cal and Micah seem to say, its hard men and those who will follow them that survive and thrive. And the Land does seem the safest place in California, guarded by a wall of spikes and resourceful people. But it has its secrets, that newcomers Cal and Frida are anxious to find out. Why is the Land left to flourish on its own? Why are there no children nor elders on the Land?
The character development of Cal, Frida, and Micah is superb, even if each character only progresses in minute steps throughout the story (much to a reader’s frustration). The description of the Land is intriguing and keeps the reader’s attention.
In the land of the post-apocalypse, I wish they all could be California books.
Review Submitted by: Shane D. Hall