Why You Need to Read California by Edan Lepucki

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I first learned about Edan Lepucki’s new book when Sherman Alexie went on The Colbert Report and promoted it. Both Alexie and Stephen Colbert spoke about the battle between Amazon and the Hachette Book Group, and encouraged viewers to buy California from Powell’s, an independent bookstore in Portland, Oregon. Lepucki’s publisher is a subsidiary of Hachette. Seeing as how I enjoy watching Colbert and love Alexie’s books and short stories, I couldn’t resist a recommendation from them. (Oh, and you want me to order it from Powell’s? Bonus! Hold on a moment. Let me log into my account. Well, since I’m on the site, I might as well order a few books to take advantage of that flat-rate shipping.)

I was not sure what to expect from this book. I avoided reading much about it and did not read the summary on the flap of the book. All I knew was that it had to do with a couple, Cal and Frida, surviving somewhere in Northern California in the wake of the collapse of civilization. If you have not read the book yet and want to be surprised by how the story progressed, stop reading this post and come back when you are done. There will be spoilers. This is part review and part reflection on this amazing book.

Lepucki never clearly defines a single cataclysmic event that leads to the post-apocalyptic world Cal and Frida live in, but we do learn that there are major climate issues, economic collapse and shortages of food and basic services. Cities like Los Angeles are falling apart, and those with money are fleeing to well-protected places called Communities. Cal and Frida make the decision to head north and hide out in the forest.

Even just a few pages in, I was struck by Lepucki’s beautiful writing. I almost didn’t care what she was writing about. Her use of words just flowed so easily that I would have been fascinated had it been a simple manual on how to survive in a post-apocalyptic world. The sentences are beautiful in their simplicity, and I often think of how Frida clung to a turkey baster as though it held the history of the world prior to the collapse of modern civilization.

In the first chapter, Lepucki writes, “From the small pile of artifacts, she picked up the abacus. She liked to pull the blue beads back and forth across the wires. She counted, she tapped, she closed her eyes. Frida had played with the abacus as a little girl and even then had depended on its calming effect” (4). Full disclosure here: my parents were both math and science geeks, and they gave my brother and me an abacus to play with. So, if I had to take one artifact into the post-apocalyptic world, it would be an abacus.

This passage about the abacus represents how Lepucki takes ordinary words and elevates them to a level that makes the reader want to savor every word. There is something about the way Cal and Frida must find shelter, tend the land and do the basic things to stay alive that makes post-apocolyptic life appealing—at least in the way Lepucki writes about it. It’s a life free of smart phones, advertising, traffic jams and all the trappings of this “comfortable” life we are accustomed to.

Of course, roughing it on their own is not necessarily enough. Frida stumbles upon what she calls “the Spikes,” strange formations made up of junk that serve us some sort of barrier. Frida’s curiosity about what lies beyond the Spikes drives the couple to find out if there are other people nearby. They find an old ghost town taken over by a group of people that happens to be run by Frida’s brother Micah. Their settlement is called the Land, and the people there work hard to keep their existence secret. Cal and Frida had thought that Micah died when he set off a suicide bomb back when they were all still in LA. It turns out that was someone else, and they had planted DNA evidence to make it look like Micah had been the bomber.

The Land seems like an ideal place on the surface. Existence is a communal experience. Everything is shared, and people contribute equally in labor. But it’s not all it appears to be, and Cal quickly starts to question things. We learn that Micah is in regular contact with a nearby Community, and he is engaged in some questionable practices in order to keep the Land’s existence secret and its inhabitants safe.

We also learn more about the Communities. They are controlling place where inhabitants are under constant surveillance and must abide by rules regarding things like having children. When we get a glimpse of Pines, a Community not far from the Land, we see that it hearkens back to an idealized version of the past, one where clean streets and friendly faces hide any problems or discomfort with the system.

Lepucki presents us with several alternatives in a world where civilization is falling apart. What we see is that even these last vestiges of society are little more than a last ditch effort to cling to a world that no longer exists. The Land and the Communities are on the verge of collapse themselves. When we last see Micah in the book, we know he has a plan to set off a bomb at Pines, and we also see that the things he does to try to guarantee the survival of the people on the Land are also the things that could cause the Land to break apart. In the end, Cal and the now pregnant Frida may have found a comfortable life at Pines, but it almost seems that they would be happier back in their little cabin in the forest with no one else around.

In California, the characters try to cling to this idea that there can still be some form of civilization despite the evidence around them. Basic services are in short supply, huge areas are being wiped out by extreme weather, violence is increasing and cities are crumbling. In this book, the apocalypse isn’t caused by a single event like zombies, an outbreak or major earthquake. The erosion of civilization itself is the apocalyptic event. That’s what makes this book so unsettling. It points out just how fragile our idea of civilization is. The beauty of this book lies in how Lepucki manages to convey that in a simple story of two people surviving in a post-apocalyptic world.

This book is worth the read. I really enjoyed it and found myself taking the last 50 pages very slow. I did not want it to be over. Go to your favorite independent bookstore and pick up a copy, or click on the link in the Work Cited section below to go to order it from Powell’s.

Lepucki made an appearance on The Colbert Report shortly after her book was released, and the interview is worth a watch. In the interview, she recommends Sweetness #9 by Stephan Eirik Clarke. I have not read it yet, but I plan to. I also look forward to Lepucki’s next book. 

Work Cited:

Lepucki, Edan. California. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2014. Print.

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