In Edan Lepucki’s debut novel, “California,” young married couple Frida and Cal must navigate a post-apocalyptic landscape in a broken-down near-future. Lepucki focuses on the complexities of basic human emotions, testing allegiances and letting secrets unravel even the most steadfast of survivors, all while illustrating how impossible it is to change what inherently makes us human.
In the aftermath of an unnamed series of cataclysms, Frida and Cal want to escape “L.A.'s chewed-up streets” and “parks growing wild in their abandonment,” with “its people starving on the sidewalks, covered in piss and crying out.” Escape they do, to an unnamed section of California full of lush forests and creeks spotted with a few homesteading holdouts.
The young couple settle in a small shed in the woods, nearly idyllic, if not for the slow burn of doom just outside its perimeter. Cal and Frida discover the Miller family homesteading nearby, but the elation they feel about their new allies is cut short when the Millers are mysteriously poisoned.
The family’s death and Frida’s newfound pregnancy become catalyzing forces in the couple’s drive to find the Land, a settlement of people they hope will embrace their growing family. Once there, Frida realizes there are no children in this self-sustaining community, and a dark story of where all the children have gone is slowly revealed.
Each newcomer to the Land faces a vote of acceptance by the entire community of settlers, and the crux of the novel’s conflict lies with Frida’s decision: hide her pregnancy to stay, or tell the truth and risk being cast back out into the dangerous woods, where food is growing scarce and whispered-about marauding pirates prey on the weak and unguarded. What follows is a tense journey to keep the couple’s unborn child safe.
Woven into the plot are Frida and Cal’s memories of their previous lives and their now-lost family, including Frida’s younger brother, Micah, who brought the couple together years before at an all-boys university named Plank. Frida is plagued by thoughts of charismatic Micah, a former leader of a Weather Underground-type organization called the Group, who was martyred as a suicide bomber. Within the Land, former students from Plank have revived the Group to both protect those who cannot protect themselves and challenge the status quo of the established, official nearby Communities.
Members of the Land fall easily into the hands of a duplicitous self-appointed leader who promises to protect them from outside threats while taking away a number of their freedoms — including having children.
The unreliable world Lepucki creates opens itself to many nagging questions. What catastrophes could have possibly occurred to make the government just give up the reins? Why have the meteorological cataclysms that killed wide swaths of people suddenly subsided, allowing for life to go on in a seemingly placid California landscape?
And if Frida and Cal have been homesteaders for nearly three years, why do they have such a naive reaction to their surroundings? They do not exhibit the hallmarks of a couple hardened by the extremes of living off the land; their just-arrived earnest innocence defies reason.
In this deeply stratified “afterlife,” the wealthy still hoard what little resources are left (intermittent electricity, expensive Internet, packaged food) and shelter themselves away in Communities with names like “Calabasas” and the nearby “Pines.” Frida’s parents have holed up in one of these communities but have inexplicably left their daughter and her husband on the outside to fend for themselves. Lepucki provides an interesting critique of society as those with the most means hurriedly splinter off into barricaded, Stepford-like towns, afraid of those without means and waiting for the 99% to arrive with pitchforks.
But even in the rag-tag Land there is division, not by class but by gender. The men in power hold the knowledge, and women are content to do their chores and not ask too many questions.
Frida, formerly a baker at the last holdout of Los Angeles civilization — Canter’s Deli — bakes on the Land too and meets an original member of the Land named Anika, who fills her in on the machinations of the settlement while Cal gets his own version of the story from the men. Rather than sharing information with each other, something that would no doubt stall the mystery of the narrative, Cal and Frida frequently turn against each other, bickering and making up on a continual, agonizing loop.
Murky events, a blurry past and a questionable chronology mar Lepucki’s entry into the literary post-apocalypse genre. Clear-cut rules of the world are critical and having an unsteady authorial hand leads to a shaky foundation.
In Karen Thompson Walker’s knockout “The Age of Miracles,” a recent entry into the dystopian genre, everyday Americans also strive for normalcy in the cul-de-sacs of an apocalyptic world but to a greater, more haunting affect. And in classic dystopian novels like J.G. Ballard’s powerful “High Rise” or J.M. Coetzee’s masterpiece “Waiting for the Barbarians,” the novelists wield their authorial power like gods building expertly drawn worlds and raising important moral questions about the way we live.
Lepucki’s cautious dystopia never quite asks the right questions of us, ultimately to the detriment of the novel.
Waclawiak is essays editor of the Believer and author of the novel “How to Get Into the Twin Palms.”
Little, Brown and Company: 393 pp., $26