When Frida was in high school, she'd taken it to help ease her cramps. She'd loved the little pink clamshell they came in and the way the tiny tablets popped out of their plastic sheaths. But before her senior year began, Dada started having trouble finding work, and gas prices were rising every week, and the family began its Great Austerity Measures, as Hilda put it. Goodbye clamshell and a menstrual cycle Frida actually kept track of. Goodbye almost everything frivolous and easy.For the past six decades or so since the development of atomic weapons, the notion that society could suddenly be wiped out by some cataclysmic event has sparked the rise of the "disaster" genre. Whether or not such fictions were dystopic or post-apocalyptic in origin matters little when considering the basic character and plot elements: an individual or small group of people confronting precipitous societal collapse. Disaster is the ultimate in human vs. nature tales, pitting our oft-delusional selves against the implacable might of Mother Earth. There is something fascinating about those tales, at least when they remember that conflict lies at the heart of these narratives and that deviations from this can fatally weaken the story being told.
By the time she and Cal had agreed to leave L.A., it seemed like no one had access to meds; only the deranged would buy a handful of drugs from a guy on the street corner. Was that really Xanax wrapped in tinfoil? Prescriptions, like doctors, were for the rich. The lucky ones, the people with money, had long fled L.A. (p. 30 iPad iBooks e-edition)
Unfortunately, Edan Lepucki's debut novel, California, fails to sustain any real coherent conflict, whether it be human vs. nature, human vs. society, or human vs. self. It is an odd sort of disaster story in that while societal collapse has occurred within two or three decades of our 2014, this disaster just does not feel plausible at all. Take for instance the passage I quote above. Frida, one-half of a married couple, muses about her teen life a little over a decade ago and her having to suddenly abandon taking birth control pills due to a worsening economy. While granted rising prices and higher unemployment rates over the past decade have slowed down GDP growth, the curious lack of detail hinders the reader's ability to suspend disbelief. Likewise with Frida's hoarder-like tendency to carry around "artifacts" from the recent past like a shower cap or a glass turkey baster. Lepucki apparently intends for these material objects to represent a desire for times long past, a way to preserve what has recently been taken from people, but the symbolism falls flat virtually every single time that she trots out, often in a near-identical way to the original introduction, those objects. The result is just dull, redundant text that should have been abandoned early on, if even inserted in the first place.
Granted, a skilled novelist does not need a plethora of background details to construct an intriguing story of life during or after a societal collapse. Chang-rae Lee in his recently-released On Such a Full Sea skimps on details behind the societal decline that led to a stratified American society centuries into the future, but he balances this out by having interesting characters interacting well with each other and their environment. Lepucki does not manage to do this, or at least not in a skillful fashion. For example, there is this scene about midway into the novel, where Frida and her husband Cal are talking with a traveling trader, August:
"I see." Cal imagined telling this to Frida; she would not take it well. "But August is always traveling the route, isn't he?"
"August isn't you," Peter said.
"What he means," Micah said, "is that August is the best candidate to trade with the few settlers nearby and to perform a regular security sweep."
"I don't know about 'the best,'" August said, "but when I tell people I'm a loner, they believe me. Or they assume it right off. I get special treatment." He brought an index finger to his cheek and tapped twice.
"Wait – why?" Cal said. "Because you're black? That's ridiculous."
"What the fuck are you talking about?"
"I only meant – "
August winked. "I'm just messing with you. Come on, Calvin – that's your full name, isn't it? I know you thought I was some kind of recovered addict. I put you on edge."
Peter, who was sitting in the pew across from Cal and August's, shifted his body so that his legs blocked the aisle. "We do things for a reason."
"I'm the last black man on earth – or at least around here."
"They should make an action movie about you," Cal replied.
This time, everyone laughed. (Ch. 12, p. 200)
Although the intent of this scene was to make light of any possible racial tension, Lepucki presents this in such a ham-fisted way that there were times that I found myself musing on what was not seen: non-whites, people who were traditionally "invisible" in the 20th century. If I were more charitable, I would merely note that this was a missed opportunity to show a more "blended" society developing among these communities of people fleeing the decaying urban cores, but I think that would be too generous. Instead, what Lepucki does here in this scene and what is reinforced obliquely in others is to make this society Frida and Cal join not a heterogeneous one, but instead a very homogeneous one. Considering the multicultural world in which we live today, this is troubling to consider.
This homogeneity is seen not just in the names and skin tone of the community's residents, but also in the social attitudes that Frida and Cal have. As the two main protagonists, their supposedly different attitudes about gender roles (particularly child rearing) should make for an exciting conflict of wills. However, Lepucki just gums the narrative gears too much with the inanity of their conversations. What this reader at least took from their occasional arguments was that somehow, despite there being at least a decade or more of societal decline, that these two were self-absorbed, vacuous adult-children who appear to be incapable of grasping anything beyond the narrow confines of their social milieu. This is not what Lepucki intends, but in passages like the one quoted below, there is no real sense of an "after" post-scarcity mindset, but instead a consumerist one that orients itself around material wealth and possessions;
"Jesus Christ, Micah." Cal didn't know what was worse: Micah talking about Frida's body, or that he was right. When she and Cal had first started dating, Frida had to buy new underwear on a regular basis. "Oops," she'd like to say, coming out of the bathroom.
Later, when the department stores went out of business, and they lost their Internet connection for good, and they had hardly a dollar to spare, especially on clothing, Frida committed herself to being a little more "organized." That's when she realized she had a perfectly predictable cycle. "I'm textbook," she'd cried, delighted. (p. 231)
And so it goes, page after page, description of live past and present, until narrative time backs up like a congested septic tank. Cal and Frida are so lost in their past selves that their present condition feels insubstantial. Their too-frequent flashback sequences do not develop the plot; they hinder it by bogging it down with a detritus of turkey basters and their ilk. Not only is it irksome to have any sense of true narrative tension shut down for large stretches, but it is at times almost loathsome to see what is practically an upper-middle class ethos being espoused by those who purportedly have suffered deprivations their adult lives. The material mindset of these two, coupled with a seemingly near-total ignorance of life outside their narrow social circles makes their thoughts and feelings a chore to read.
This difficulty in having an empathy for the characters is exacerbated by the inelegant prose. Leaving aside sentences like "she cried, delighted" that are merely overused intensifiers, there are innumerable cases where the descriptors are labored over so much that the paragraphs struggle to bear the weight of these ponderous sentences, such as this one about Frida's brother:
But most of the people her age weren't like Micah, who was smart. Brilliant. A kid who needed to get out of L.A. so he could return to save it. (p. 80)
There is an attempt to develop this important character, yes, but it feels so stilted. I usually despise the truism of "show, not tell," but in this particular case, too much effort was wasted in telling the reader about this character and not letting him develop through intriguing action. This is the case throughout the novel when it comes to other characters and situations. It makes for a hot mess, one that ruins any atmosphere that might otherwise have developed.
There is little in California to recommend itself to readers. Ill-conceived character interactions, uneven narrative flow, pedestrian at best prose, and questionable comments on race and gender do not make for a good read. This is perhaps the worst novel I have read in 2014. Recommendation to avoid.