Heart of the Great Alone

Edan californiaI blame Stephen Colbert.

Edan Lepucki’s California is best known as the book Colbert championed a year ago when he was embroiled in his feud with Amazon.  His goal?  Give it the Colbert Bump by encouraging his viewers to pre-order it from any bookseller other than Amazon.  I accepted the challenge and, respecting Colbert as one of our smartest voices, was looking forward to an equally smart novel about life after the apocalypse.

What I got instead was an underwhelming read that promises much but delivers on almost none of it.

Another part of the problem, I admit, may be me.  There’s a distinctly T.C. Boyle-ian feel to Lepucki’s story of a married couple attempting to find community in the ruins of the Golden State, but anyone who tries to write like T.C. Boyle who isn’t actually named T.C. Boyle is going to come up short.  Boyle does this thing where he sets characters on a collision course that usually ends in violence.  As a reader you can’t initially see the course, but Boyle somehow manages to imbue his stories with a sense of creeping dread – which in all my reading is unique to him – that increases until the inevitable explosion.  His books are wonderfully discomfiting, and I could sense Lepucki going for something similar here.  Problem is, Lepucki is no Boyle.

But California has promise.  Taking place in an unspecified near-future, the United States as we know it has ceased to exist.  There are references to a central government, but cataclysmic storms, a shortage of natural resources, and domestic terrorism have caused those who can afford it to split into protected Communities where they try to recreate the old world (for horror movie fans, think Fiddler’s Green in George A. Romero’s Land of the Dead).  For those who can’t afford this refuge, they have to make do as best they can living off the land: scrounging, foraging, living without electricity or running water, and perpetually guarding themselves from marauding bands of Pirates.  Enter Cal and Frida, a married couple living a fairly idyllic life in Northern California.  They have routines, they have friends (Bo, Sally, and their two children, who live nearby), and they trade with August, an enigmatic salesman who runs routes between Communities and the survivors in the wilderness.

But then there’s a convergence of events that kicks the plot into gear.  First, Frida suspects she’s pregnant, and she has to consider how she and Cal will raise a child with no stable resources.  Second, Bo reveals to Cal that near their home – within two days’ hike – are huge spikes rising out of the ground which he thinks form a protective boundary for a group of survivors.  And third, when Cal visits Bo and Sally’s home one day, he finds them all dead – poisoned – in an apparent group suicide.  Frida and Cal make the decision to head for the Spikes, to see if there really is a community thriving in the wilderness, and, of course, to see if they’ll offer them, and their unborn child, refuge.

The problem at this point is that Lepucki gets more plates spinning than she can handle.  Running parallel to these passages about life in the post-apocalyptic wasteland are flashbacks to Cal and Frida in their early 20s and their interactions with Frida’s brother Micah.  A prominent figure in a political action group called, natch, The Group, Micah blew himself up years ago in a crowded shopping mall as a political statement.  Without giving too much away, when Frida and Cal discover that there are, in fact, survivors beyond the Spikes (they call their community The Land, and, oh yeah, the Spikes are actually called The Forms – Lepucki is way into these bland titles) they also discover that they’re not as done with Micah as they thought.

This is where I see Lepucki trying to pull a Boyle: the Land follows the policy of “containment” – not allowing any new residents into their settlement – so Frida and Cal are told there will eventually be a vote deciding whether or not they can stay.  The couple tries to ingratiate themselves with the residents while keeping Frida’s pregnancy a secret and, in the process, learning about the Land’s profoundly (and violently) checkered past.  It’s clear – or at least it seems clear – that this won’t end well, but the whole thing ultimately makes like a rapidly deflating balloon, ending in a soggy non-ending that I think is supposed to be profound but reads more like Lepucki wasn’t sure how to wrap things up.  California is just so busy that there’s no center for a reader to cling to.  Is it a romance?  A post-apocalyptic survival tale?  A political satire?  A meditation on the importance of family?  It tries to do everything, which means it sort of ends up doing nothing.

And that’s really too bad.  Lepucki’s post-apocalypse world-building is vivid and believable, and what I found especially effective is the way she describes the end of that world as an inevitability rooted in things we already see happening in this world (powerful storms, water shortages, income inequality).  There’s also a sly sense of humor at play – when Frida first meets Sally’s son, the young boy is wearing a t-shirt, clearly scavenged from the ruins, bearing the words “Official Pussy Inspector” – and there’s no denying the queasy relatability of some of the political sloganeering.  But it just never really adds up to much.  The tension builds and builds to the vote deciding Frida and Cal’s fate, but just when we expect there to be an explosion we get a damp squib instead.

Lepucki is obviously one to watch, but California is still a well-intentioned miss.

*****

Current listening:

Gang entertainment

Gang of Four – Entertainment! (1979)

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