What if? Edan Lepucki’s California conjectures a fictional future.
Guest Review by Lanie Tankard
“The threat to the planet is us.”
The plot of Edan Lepucki’s debut novel California is quite absorbing, but the story about her book is pretty engrossing as well. First a recap—then a review. You can click on any highlighted words for more information.
Award-winning author Sherman Alexie was a guest on Stephen Colbert’s television show, The Colbert Report, June 4 to discuss the dispute between Amazon and Hachette Book Group. Books by both Alexie and Colbert are part of the Hachette Group, as is Lepucki’s novel. Colbert had asked Alexie to recommend a forthcoming Hachette book that he liked. Alexie picked California. Colbert held up a copy of the book and implored his viewers, “the Colbert Nation,” to preorder California (but not from Amazon) to demonstrate their power. Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon, agreed to handle the process. Before long, Lepucki found herself signing over 10,000 copies in just three days to meet those preorders. California was published July 8. Then, on July 21, Lepucki herself was a guest on The Colbert Show. Her book tour included a talk on July 30 at BookPeople in Austin, Texas, which I caught.
“I didn’t realize how much power Colbert had,” Lepucki told the audience. Someone asked how the unexpected event had changed her life.
“I’m in a different city every day. I know how hotels work now,” she replied. “It’s no stage. I’m on this publicity machine that is like a real monster. I figure it’ll end by September. I’m still a good ol’ girl.”
Does she feel comfortable in her role against Amazon?Lepucki is a staff writer at The Millions. “I’ve worked at a bookstore,” she explained. “I’ve bought only one book from Amazon in my life. I believe a diverse book market is a better book market. My husband works for Goodreads.” California is dedicated to Patrick Brown, director of author marketing at Goodreads—which is now owned by Amazon. (And there’s actually a bit of a dispute going on there, too, amongst readers.)
What books does Lepucki herself recommend? She left some suggestions at BookPeople.
That’s the news brief for the book California—but what of Lepucki’s actual novel?
In her story, she creates a dystopia, defined as “an imaginary place where people are unhappy and usually afraid because they are not treated fairly.” This dystopia follows an apocalypse, any universal or widespread destruction or disaster that could spell eventual doom pointing to the end of the world. Lepucki’s California apocalypse has already occurred when the first chapter begins.
The author places a young married couple into an isolated spot and offers them alternating chapters to present their individual perspectives. Through their dialogue and thoughts, Frida and Cal gradually reveal the barebones backstory of the forces that drove them to flee Los Angeles. In slow but sure fashion, Lepucki sprinkles enough crumbs of information to create a hazy scenario of the forces that intersected: natural disasters like earthquakes, rampant crime, economic and digital divides, and severe weather that ran amuck in such forms as extreme snowstorms. Frida and Cal traveled as far as a lone can of gas would take their car, and then abandoned the vehicle to walk deep into a forest to begin a new life. Lepucki details their day-to-day activities and delves into their relationship. Frida becomes pregnant and they begin to encounter other people. Her brother, Micah, was Cal’s college roommate and is the third protagonist. To reveal much more would be unfair to potential readers.
What drew Lepucki to this theme?
“I don’t think too hard about why I’m writing,” she said in Austin. “I heard the phrase post-apocalyptic domestic drama and thought it sounded pretty cool. I was stopped at a red light in LA and all the lights went out. That was eerie. I thought about it a lot. I wanted the book to be about a marriage, so I made it both intimate and larger.” She actually examines a number of relationships—between couples, siblings, close friends, and group members.
Lepucki says her favorite aspect of the writing process is “the daydreaming part, before you put anything down on the page—just living with the characters and doing mental marinating. I love to write sentences.” And the hardest facet of writing? “Every part is both totally frustrating and totally exhilarating.” She had been writing in first person, “so it was cool to shift to close third” for the novel.
She credits her editor, Allie Sommer at Little, Brown, for a lot of assistance in the world-building process.
“I was her first book. She’s quite young. She gave it her all. She didn’t let me get away with anything.It was three years before I sold her my third draft, so it was about four years for the project.”
Within the eroded despoiled world Lepucki created, she calls attention to disparity between various classes: rich/poor, male/female, educated/uneducated, parent/childless. Leaders attempt to placate the lower divisions to make them happy with their status, a feat difficult to accomplish amidst totalitarian rule by fear. The plot probes the ideas of marriage, motherhood, and elimination of the family unit. Lepucki told her Austin listeners she was writing California with her newborn baby.
“Giving birth shows up in post-apocalyptic narrative a lot,” she noted, “as in The Children of Men.”
Social, economic, and political indicators in California point to a failed state, one larger than the actual California. Little wonder then that mind and population control in the novel combine with mass surveillance and result in conspiracies to overthrow various leaders.
Characters in the story repurpose things as they craft their new habitats. They fashion tall spires called the Spikes out of cast-off items wired together. Reminiscent of the Watts Towers in LA, the Spikes serve as a barrier, much like a moat does for a castle. Lepucki utilizes the Spikes as a trenchant metaphor about materialistic excess and waste, offering a silent commentary on the built world. Look around today and you see assorted structures made with repurposed objets trouvés (found objects), running the gamut all the way from shipping container architecture to the Cathedral of Junk in Austin, Texas.
One Austin reader asked Lepucki if California was “a statement about anything,” pointing out that “there are undertones of different social issues happening in the world now.”
“No,” she declared. “I’m a feminist. It’s set in the future. There’s smaller-scale sexism. I was interested in exploring this in a relationship like a marriage. I had no timetable, no storyline. I work almost entirely by intuition. I’m usually a couple chapters ahead of myself. I have an image but don’t know where I’m going. If I have an outline, it’s no fun for me.” She feels “a writer’s relationship to the world he or she lives in” is less important. “Writers should just wholly inhabit the characters they’re writing about. That act alone seems political in and of itself. If I set forth ideas about what we should do, it would be too…” (and she trailed off).
While Lepucki’s tale is not prescriptive, it does encode a warning by the very nature of the author’s societal observations. Doris Lessing touched on this idea once in an interview published in The Paris Review:
“I think a writer’s job is to provoke questions. I like to think that if someone’s read a book of mine, they’ve had—I don’t know what—the literary equivalent of a shower. Something that would start them thinking in a slightly different way perhaps. That’s what I think writers are for. This is what our function is. We spend all our time thinking about how things work, why things happen, which means that we are more sensitive to what’s going on.”Just as Lepucki was surprised by the power of Colbert, she may be equally startled to discover the influence her book could have in prompting questions about current issues. For example, here are some of the questions that one thread in California provoked for me: What is a gate? Why do we build them? Do gates keep something out, or do they keep something in? By putting up barriers, do we hope to keep everything hunky-dory on our side while blotting out our view of all that is not on the other side? Are gates always physical, or do we erect them in our minds as well by cordoning off our thinking? How do we find points of access through gates, or better yet—dismantle them?
Simply by designing an imaginary post-apocalyptic setting formed of contemporary societal problems, Lepucki pursues in various ways the traditions of books such as Lessing’s Memoirs of a Survivor, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins) and Divergent (Veronica Roth) trilogies (as well as the Orange County trilogy, also known as The Three Californias, by Kim Stanley Robinson), A Clockwork Orange (Anthony Burgess), Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.
Indeed, Lepucki told her Austin audience that Atwood’s novel about futuristic control of women’s bodies “is my favorite of that genre.” And there is a certain type of bond between Lepucki’s Frida and Atwood’s Offred, perhaps what Ursula K. Le Guin called “the Sisterhood of Woman.” But what to call this entire type of novel?
Atwood has discussed the nomenclature of what she terms speculative fiction with Ursula K. Le Guin, who had argued for the term science fiction in a Guardian review of Atwood’s book The Year of the Flood. Le Guin said one of the things science fiction does is to “extrapolate imaginatively from current trends and events to a near-future that’s half prediction, half satire.” Lepucki seems to pursue a trifecta of sociology, satire, and speculation in California. When she builds a treehouse as a retreat for one of the main protagonists, it feels like a nod to Italo Calvino’s Cosimo from The Baron in the Trees.
Then there’s the term social science fiction used by Isaac Asimov. Sociology-oriented science fiction takes current problems and plays them out to possible future scenarios, offering readers a chance to consider the consequences of allowing situations to continue unchecked—and thereby the opportunity to decide whether action should be taken to halt them. Christopher Leslie has explained: “The social science fiction after World War 2 is supposed to work on the principle of ‘what if.’ According to practitioners like [Arthur C.] Clarke, John Campbell, Isaac Asimov, and Robert Heinlein, the technique of science fiction should be akin to speculation. The presentation of a definite and knowable space as a representation of a knowable future does not create room for speculation. If the future is set, then speculation cannot happen.”
Lepucki is definitely speculating in California. She’s also satirizing as she imaginatively predicts. Her book is not so much an end-times Armageddon as it is a heads up. I happened to be reading The Star Thrower by Loren Eiseley when I wrote this review, and ran across a sentence that nailed Lepucki’s California for me: “There was something in the desperate nature of the world that had to be reversed.”
The gentrification effect is certainly real. Climate change is here. Difficulties in marital communication exist. Sexism? Take a look at the Everyday Sexism Project started by Laura Bates. Roving gangs, suicide bombers, terrorist cells, debates about birth/motherhood/families and religion…the list goes on.
Lepucki’s thoughtfully constructed world felt authentic, but it was not without glitches. Several threads, such as the weather, didn’t play out fully. Occasional weak dialogue undercut the impact of some scenes. Even so, this novel kept me reading. Perhaps it comes down to the writerly question Atwood once posed: Will readers “find the story compelling and plausible enough to go along for the ride”?
Rather than using war or an epidemic, Lepucki employs the allegory of gated communities that keep out those who are different. City infrastructures collapse as the economy self-destructs. She uses group dynamics to examine the erection of hierarchies. She shapes a scenario that scrutinizes the process by which people get to belong—or not. Lepucki may not have planned her book this way, but California could become an editorial cautionary tale evaluating current trends and challenging readers to reflect deeply.
Lepucki leaves open for discussion the ultimate hero of her story. Is it Frida or Cal? She parses the I-Thou communication in their marriage relationship to great effect, and leaves enough seeds by the end of the novel that could develop into later troubles. Will there be a sequel? Perhaps another trilogy? Not soon.
“I’m working on another book,” Lepucki said in Austin. “I don’t talk about a book I’m working on, but I’ll say it takes place in contemporary times and is about ladies with problems. I may return to the world I created in California at some point, but right now I’m glad to be working in the present time.”
Meanwhile, California delivers a clarion call. The realm Edan Lepucki imagines in California is where we could all be headed—unless, of course, we’re already there.
Lanie Tankard is a freelance writer and editor in Austin, Texas. A member of the National Book Critics Circle and former production editor of Contemporary Psychology: A Journal of Reviews, she has also been an editorial writer for the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville.