Tuesday, September 16, 2014

California by Edan Lepucki: Eat, Pray, Apocalypse?

About a third of the way into California, the main character Frida encounters a porcupine in the woods and runs back to her makeshift encampment screaming for her husband.

This would be a great scene in a satiric novel, and California could have been written as killer satire, but I don't think satire is what Lepucki intended.

For this reason, and so many others, Lepucki's first novel never really delivers on the cover promise of a "stunning and brilliant... wholly original take on the post-apocalyptic genre."

I wanted to love this novel. I love Sherman Alexie. Love Stephen Colbert. Feel zero fondness for Amazon and buy from Powell's all the time.

Lepucki looked like a nice person who was very excited to be getting this kind of 'bump' on her very first time out of the gate.

I like all of that.

I give Lepucki kudos for writing a novel and publishing it. I give myself kudos for finishing nearly 400 pages patiently hoping things would quickly turn around.

But for me, they never did.

Lots of opportunities were missed in this story.

Cal and Frida are not very deeply drawn and are not very sympathetic main characters. They seem as bland and blonde and California-ish as the state itself seems to people in other parts of the U.S., parts that already deal with severe winters, tornados, hurricanes, all manner of invasive species and diseases, and urban decay with roots in rioting and dead factories.

Again, if this was satire, that could work. It doesn't.

Missed opportunity number one: the title.

Why is the book called California? We never really find out. Frida's husband Cal is teasingly called "California' by Frida's obnoxious brother Micah (who later becomes a sort of terrorist/cult leader), but the story is more Frida's than anyone else's.

California could have been an ironic title, but it isn't. It's just kind of there, like Frida and Cal are there, and then, they're somewhere else, and then they're somewhere else.They leave the city for an unnamed wilderness. Why, it's hard to say. Frida clearly is not into it, and it is hard to understand how their woodland life is any better than their post-apocalyptic city life.

Missed opportunity number two: So much attention is paid to the fairly shallow (and endless) interpersonal dynamics that we never get a real sense of scene, and it seems to me that in a novel about a fallen-apart world, you have to deliver that at minimum. That is one of the must-do requirements of the genre.

The forest doesn't seem real, the apocalyptic landscapes are thin and poorly explained, and the weather is surprisingly bland, almost non-existent--and this when at the moment half of real California is either on fire or desperate for water. It gets cold, it gets hot. It doesn't storm. We see a porcupine, a coyote, and a couple of rabbits.

I need more.

Missed opportunity number three: The characters. All of them are sketchy, shallow, annoying.

Maybe it is because Lepucki is still young, I don't know, but she didn't go deep enough, not by half. We never really care about Frida, Cal, or Micah. At their most conflicted worst they irritate us as much as they irritate each other, but having seen the fireworks at ordinary funerals and weddings many times in my 60-plus years, I have to think the interpersonal drama triggered by survival issues would go a lot deeper than, "oh cool, Micah still has the bee toy Mom attached to his stroller," and "wow are our hands ever chapped!"

Missed opportunity number four: A plot.

OK, there is a plot. But it is maddeningly expository, like one of those bad sci-fi flicks where the characters fill in the backstory with longwinded impossible dialogue. Lepucki even kills, then reanimates one of the main characters for no apparent reason, breaking a rule that should not really be broken unless you can dazzle with your surprising plot skills.

The plot almost seems like an annoyance to Lepucki, something that she knows she has to deal with as a writer but that takes away from her focus on the tension between the characters.

I personally think that if your characters are annoying and unsympathetic, they should at least get eaten or something by the end of the novel, and hopefully in a spectacular, unpredictable way, but alas, it is not meant to be. This is what happens in monster movies, but not in Lepucki's novel.

By the end of California Frida and Cal are back in a 'community' not unlike the suburban plats we all see everywhere these days, where everything is beige and all the lawns are perfect. Frida and Cal stop complaining about their chapped hands and go back to complaining about bad clothes, bad food, stupid suburban rules, and they still don't seem to like each other much.

This is the way the world ends?

Not with a bang, but a whimper, tasteless nutritional shakes, and bad retail.

Why, God? Why?!

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