Little Brown Book Group, 2014
California is no formulaic dystopia. Journeys to redemption, signs of insurgency, chosen ones, or even easily identifiable antagonists are nowhere to be found in Edan Lepucki’s solid debut novel. The book opens some time after the collapse of capitalist society with two fugitives: Frida and Cal. They are hiding—whom from we are not sure, but we learn early on that the ability to conceal one’s traces is a condition of survival in Lepucki’s universe. That universe, as the title of the novel gives away, is California. Or, rather, some version of it: highways, established in Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 as the state’s most distinct psychogeographic feature, have been “left to rot.” In their absence, abandoned rest stops amidst patches of wilderness form a zone that Frida nicknames “the afterlife.” Frida also uses this phrase—the afterlife—as a measure of time, to designate the months that she and Cal have spent in isolation, bereft of the comfort of routines and rituals. Odd or unreliable indicators of time and space abound in Lepucki’s novel. After Frida intuits that she might be pregnant, she and Cal venture out of their encampment in search of other survivors and meet a character named August. Micah, Frida’s brother and Cal’s former roommate, used to tease Cal, shorthand for Calvin, by calling him California. In Lepucki’s nomenclature, the afterlife labels both a space and a time, August a time and a character, and California a space and a character. As they double, these concepts lose their purchase, their value as benchmarks. Disorientation prevails.
Many factors, some of which are only vaguely evoked, explain the social decline that serves as California’s premise. Commodities and services, like gas, contraceptives, or the Internet, become too expensive. Climate change intensifies. Cal’s mother, for instance, dies in a massive snowstorm that decimates Cleveland. As institutions collapse, a rise in religiosity comes to tint civil unrest. Suicide bombings become common occurrences—a morbid trend whose instigator is widely believed to be Micah.
Yet, Lepucki is less interested in recounting “what went wrong” than in exploring the narrative possibilities offered by American society after its decline. A disquieting passage firmly embeds the novel in a future beyond history as we know it. Following their encounter with August, Frida and Cal come across the Miller family. Before he, along with the rest of his clan, dies prematurely in a suspicious poisoning incident, Bo Miller teaches Frida and Cal about their toxic new environs:
Bo explained that experts in the previous century had designed different ways to warn of a site’s danger, so that anyone might understand them: the foreigner, the illiterate, the alien. Large spikes had been one suggestion. In a thousand years, the message had to be clear, so that people understood what had been left there. “For the future,” Bo said, and a thread of ice inched down Cal’s spine. The future had arrived.
Cal and Frida find themselves in a vertiginous position. They have no trouble understanding that they are facing danger. What they lack, however, is the capacity to guard themselves from it. The passage above exhibits one of California’s greatest strengths: its swiftness in translating a large-scale socio-historical tabula rasa into a matter of individual experience. If California is a page-turner, it is not due to some operatic plot about the fate of America or the planet. It is rather due to its skilful construction of an intimate, character-centric drama. We quickly become curious to learn how the characters will acclimate to their setting, or how kinship will deploy itself in a precarious environment.
As Frida and Cal meet additional survivors, we discover the social configuration borne out of the wreckage of capitalism. In this proto-feudalism, more or less porous areas and groups—the Land, the Communities—ensure their sovereignty by erecting fortresses and barricades. The Land, which is the specific group in which Frida and Cal end up, gives its protection mechanism the strangely immaterial and metaphysical name of “Forms.” Groups enact philosophies of their own. These are spiritualized blends of political hierarchies, labour practices, and eugenic policies. Lepucki, equipped with tongue-in-cheek, anachronistic humour (she writes, for example, of a man that he “shrugged like a dad in a sitcom”), gives these philosophies a resolutely yuppie flavour. Characters speak of their group’s “brand” and affirm, without a hint of self-awareness, “We value leisure time here, … and the boredom of a slow life.”
Despite its quasi-parodic moments, California remains rather conservative in its emotional range. For the majority of their novel, Frida and Cal oscillate between two affective positions: paranoia and relief. Paranoia, the fear of a total system, intensifies as the protagonists are encouraged, and choose, to keep certain information secret from each other. Offered access to confidential meetings on the Land, Cal fantasizes about the possibility of grasping the “big picture”—that is, until he starts doubting the existence of such a holistic logic:
Wasn’t that, in the end, what he wanted? To discover how this place worked—not just its outward system of organization but its inward, private one as well? Its secret machinations, the strings that gestured the puppet. Who was the puppet, though? Maybe it wasn’t all that sinister. Frida was probably right; he was descending into paranoia.
The panoptical intimacy of the characters, simultaneously observing and being observed, provides no guarantee of emotional transparency. Even in California’s slower chapters, the paranoid structure that governs the novel thus affords its fair share of suspense.
Relief, in its rare manifestations, takes the shape of a provisional ability to inhale and exhale. In California, relief is a brief hiatus from the fear that otherwise organises the characters’ quotidian existence, a taste of the “painless life” to which they aspire. Breathing analogies profuse. Even bread loaves are “warm as breathing bodies” and “[inflate] like lungs.” While the omnipresence of references to breathing and the breath initially annoys, it successfully conveys the entrapment or lack of air that typifies Lepucki’s dystopia. Her figures of style are not subtle, but they are efficacious.
Not subtle, but efficacious: a similar diagnosis applies to some of the more peripheral plot elements. Case in point: Frida carries with her a turkey baster throughout the first half of the story, but refuses to tell Cal. When Cal finds out about the object, Frida claims that she kept it for herself as a means to prevent him from “using” it. The message, about the soothing properties of triviality in the midst of insecurity, is slightly overstated. But, it deserves to be said, the inflated symbolism of the turkey baster does not distract from a narration that is otherwise limpid and astute. With California, Lepucki incepts a dense, palpable universe, holds it together, and, in doing so, offers a sharp ethnography of human behaviour in the wake of catastrophes.
Jean-Thomas Tremblay  is a PhD student in English Language and Literature at the University of Chicago. His research interests include the narrative and aesthetic purchase of somatic phenomena like breathing in contemporary U.S. fiction.