REVIEW: California by Edan Lepucki
If you enjoy reading Electric Literature, join our mailing list! We’ll send you the best of EL each week, and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming submissions periods and virtual events.
America never tires of a good apocalypse. It’s been over three quarters of a century since audiences listened, rapt, to a broadcast describing Martians invading New York City; this summer hundreds of thousands flocked to watch San Francisco get stomped on by a giant lizard. And while it came to fame surfing the Steven Colbert “bump,” Edan Lepucki’s post-apocalyptic thriller California is the literary equivalent of a summer blockbuster — fun, fast paced, but perhaps a little too familiar.
The narrative follows married couple Cal and Frida, two among the last remaining humans on earth. Snowstorms and other natural disasters have decimated the United States and the survivors are either hiding in the woods, as Cal and Frida are, or are living in so-called “communities,” where the 99% can afford to lock the rest of the world out of their paradise (remember 2013’s Elysium?). But when you’re in love — truly in love — it can sometimes feel like there’s no one else on the planet but the two of you. “You know what I like best about this place?,” Cal asks his wife, then answers, “No one can hear me fucking your brains out.”
But are they really so very alone? It would seem that there are other survivors hiding in the forests of California too. And then comes the real kicker: Frida is pregnant. Now more than ever before the need to find other humans is essential. But in California, the past is never truly past and there are more than a few memories waiting for Cal and Frida in the secretive community they must join in order to survive.
Lepucki has attributed, and thanked, Colbert for the overwhelming reception to her debut novel (she spent three days at Powell’s signing ten thousand pre-ordered copies of her book). Rather than have California fall casualty to Hachette and Amazon’s war, Colbert assured it was a success; while his goal was commendable, California’s own efforts get tangled up in the delivery. Technical inconsistencies abound: one exchange has a character claiming that spikes protecting a community of survivors “weren’t that old,” followed on the next page by the assessment that, “they’d built [the spikes] long ago.” So-called “Pirates” have, unbelievably, conditioned survivors into literally cowering at the sight of anything red (be it blood or an item of clothing). But most irksome of all is that California fails to give itself the rein to try something — anything — new with the post-apocalyptic plot line. Instead, it comes across as Lepucki’s self-indulgent contribution to the well-trodden doomsday narrative, as opposed to what would surprise and impress a reader: That is, a break from the genre’s well-worn conventions.
This is mostly because, in prioritizing her politics and concept over the dynamics between Cal and Frida, Lepucki has made an easy mistake. Writers err when they forget that it’s the characters a reader cares about — at least more than they care about any apocalypse or smoke-and-mirrors games concerning characters’ pasts. The familiarity of Cal and Frida’s relationship offers little for anyone to invest in. Couples fight; this doesn’t make a reader inherently interested, or the story inherently tense. Instead, a reader might just be annoyed because, despite parenthood looming, Cal and Frida act absurdly juvenile. Cal wonders if a mutual friend “made fun of him” behind his back so that “when Frida saw Cal again, she had the urge to laugh, and had to force herself not to.” Playground politics reign. The couple keep secrets, give each other the silent treatment. “Try to hide your boner,” Frida will childishly snap, or Cal will comment that something “kind of weirds me out.” If California is testing their relationship, the result is befuddling rather than wrenching. The bickering couple, with which readers might try to relate, instead alienates. Little about Cal and Frida’s interactions feel natural.
California’s biggest twist comes when a mysterious third character is (re)introduced to the narrative. But in doing so, Lepucki recreates a recognizable dynamic that was long ago tread by Margaret Atwood with Snowman, Crake and Oryx (and like Oryx and Crake, California falls victim to what TV Tropes terms “Everyone Went to School Together.”) Additionally, the stunt itself — bringing a character back from the dead — is a formula that’s best left to the soap operas. As a result, the reader is betrayed to believe that nothing in Lepucki’s world is ever permanent or threatening (this persists, even with a gun being tossed about during the final act). There’s even talk of a beheading, but it’s described so blandly by another character that one wonders if it even affected her at all: “[it] was horrible, but…we wanted to see it.” Afterwards, their conversation casually progresses to the topic of architecture. California’s post-apocalyptic concept comes across as oddly sterile, concluding with an empty finale without any real confrontation or development in the characters.
America loves a good apocalypse — but the trouble is, it knows this story by heart. California is just another Godzilla: flashy, entertaining, hyped, and ultimately forgettable.
by Edan Lepucki