California

  • Author: Edan Lepucki
  • Published: July, 2014

Disappointing. That pretty much sums up the experience of reading Edan Lepucki’s post-apocalyptic debut novel California. Alas, such is the inevitable description for any novel that comes at you strong out of the gate but limps to the finish line. California has all the makings of a rip-roaring adventure, but the flame dims considerably after too many chapters of nonsensical detours, recycled conflict and cringe-inducing dialogue. The Stand this is not. 

Cal and Frida are a young married couple eking out a living in the California wilderness. They abandoned L.A. after society collapsed, and the city turned to a ruin of "chewed up streets, shuttered stores and sagging houses" where people were "starving on the sidewalks, covered in piss and crying out." No specific cause is assigned, but a confluence of global warming, pandemics and terrorism are all mentioned. They spend their days in the forest foraging, gardening, setting traps and knocking boots. “It’s cheaper than going to the movies.” Frida says. After four months of isolation, Cal and Frida stumble upon the Millers, a resourceful couple with two young children living in a tucked away house nearby. They inform Frida and Cal about a colony of people living in a fortress-like compound a few day’s journey away. When Frida suspects she’s pregnant, she convinces Cal that life amongst this mysterious community would be safer for their future child. After the Millers commit an inexplicable family suicide, Cal and Frida decide to risk it all and find this hidden society in the hopes of gaining entry.

The story begins to fall apart from there. The reader is thrust from a compelling wilderness survival tale into what is basically an amish soap opera. The realistic bent of the first few chapters devolves into a head scratching series of encounters with their new neighbors. Instead of working together, Cal and Frida begin bickering and keeping secrets of their own. A labyrinth of shifting loyalties, clandestine conversations, tedious flashbacks and tiresome family drama drives everything towards what is ultimately a haphazard conclusion. The question of how much freedom are you willing to trade for security is explored ad nauseam.   

California shows occasional promise, and Edan Lepucki may return with a more fully realized effort somewhere down the road. But with so much compelling end-of-the-word literature to already choose from, I'm afraid California wouldn't make it onto my bunker shelf.