An interesting, different dystopian novel
The sunshine state lies in darkness.
Los Angeles is in ruins, left to the angels now.
And the world Cal and Frida have always known is gone.
Cal and Frida have left the crumbling city of Los Angeles far behind them. They now live in a shack in the wilderness, working side-by-side to make their days tolerable despite the isolation and hardships they face. Consumed by fear of the future and mourning for a past they can’t reclaim, they seek comfort and solace in one other. But the tentative existence they’ve built for themselves is thrown into doubt when Frida finds out she’s pregnant.
Terrified of the unknown but unsure of their ability to raise a child alone, Cal and Frida set out for the nearest settlement, a guarded and paranoid community with dark secrets. These people can offer them security, but Cal and Frida soon realise this community poses its own dangers. In this unfamiliar world, where everything and everyone can be perceived as a threat, the couple must quickly decide whom to trust.
Edan Lepucki’s debut rocketed to the top of bestseller lists when it received the Colbert Bump — in the midst of the Hachette-Amazon feud, Stephen Colbert mentioned the novel as a debut that people should check out, but one that was not available to pre-order (very important for debuts) because of the ongoing battle between the retailer and publisher. As a fan of dystopian fiction, I was naturally intrigued. It’s taken me a while to get around to reading it, though. It’s an interesting take on the sub-genre, with some interesting things to say, too.
That being said, I struggled at first to get into it — Lepucki’s prose is quite vague for a fair bit of the novel. I don’t need everything explained or explicit (which annoys me far more than vagueness), but it took me far longer than normal before I really started to click with the characters and story.
The cause of the collapse, though, is all-too-believable (especially recent water shortages, etc.). I’m sure there’s a proper phrase for this kind of ‘apocalypse’ — something that’s only slightly removed from reality, or an exaggeration without tipping over into parody or hyperbole. Economic collapse, an incredible separation of the haves and have-nots. After realizing that she’s pregnant, Frida decides to travel to an established community, where she believes she might have a better chance of protecting and raising her child. But surprises abound when she gets there. Not all of them good, by any means.
Frida’s relationship with Cal, her partner and the father of her child, is well-written and presented (we get a look through both of their perspectives) — it’s realistic, and it was interesting to see how they react and interpret things differently. For me, they were the most interesting aspect of the story; meanwhile, the dystopia in which they live is always hovering over events, and informs everything, including the couple’s relationship.
It’s perhaps inevitable that California will be spoken and written about with mentions of Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven and Monica Byrne’s The Girl on the Road — two other prominent dystopias released at roughly the same time. I haven’t read the latter, but Mandel’s is easily among my favourite novels of the past five years. I didn’t like California as much as I did that novel, but it is still one I would urge you to try.
The prose style didn’t always work for me, but the novel has a lot to offer. It’s thought-provoking and interesting, not to mention a disturbing.
California is published by Little, Brown in both the UK and US. (Review copy provided by UK publisher.)