Publication date: July 8, 2014
There is no prelude in Edan Lepucki’s debut novel, California, no introduction to life in a time of normalcy. Instead, the novel begins with Cal and Frida living in a small house in a forest somewhere in the U.S. but we don’t know where because state names are no longer used. The dystopia is in full swing as America has finally collapsed due to climate change, the oil crisis, ineffectual government, and the widening divide between the rich and everyone else. Natural disasters have wiped out established cities and populations and disease has killed enough that the rich have fled to Communities—newly established towns with their own police forces, schools, hospitals, fire departments and restrictive requirements for admittance.
Cal and Frida left a dying Los Angeles two years ago and while they are managing to eke out an existence in the forest when Frida becomes pregnant they decide to strike out for what is known as a settlement or, as Lepucki makes clear, communities for everyone without the money to live in a Community. They reach the heavily protected outer boundaries of a place known as the Land where they are welcomed in but not as strangers. It turns out Frida’s brother Micah, a terrorist fighting the government, who she thought was dead, is the leader of this settlement. They are accepted provisionally until a vote with the entire group can be held. Micah also tells them there can be no mention of Frida’s pregnancy.
Lepucki mirrors the desiccation of the environment in her characters. Cal and Frida are supposed to be in love and yet evidence of this is scarce beyond their life in the forest. Once in the Land, as they split into separate jobs, she in the kitchen baking and he with the group’s leadership, they begin forming their own alliances, gathering their own information, keeping secrets and sometimes, even distrusting each other. Through her prose, Lepucki generates a flat affect in all of the characters that gives a monotone feeling to the novel. Everyone is guarded and secretive. No one questions anything, there is no talk of the past, all has been buried and yet, something is going on. Cal feels it brush against him for a moment
The life they’d created for themselves had been fragile and solid at once, beautiful in those ways, too: the shell of an egg, the stone of a pillar. Now things felt wrong.
but lets it go as he becomes more involved in how the Land really works.
California shows a country shrunken down to its most elemental level: rich versus poor—which provides fodder for discussion no matter which side you’re on. Lepucki then turns it upside down, showing the tangled underpinnings. The Land’s history, Micah’s leadership, and his plans for the future are all called into question. Events culminate at the group vote and California falls into a chaos that may have been designed by Lepucki or just got out of hand. The result is a jumble of action, an ending that feels misplaced, and the realization that what is left is exactly what always was. Dystopian, indeed.
Tomorrow night, August 12th, Edan Lepucki will be appearing at the Seattle Public Library with Sherman Alexie in an event co-sponsored by The Elliott Bay Book Company.
This book can be purchased online at: