Novel * Edan Lepucki * A Kinder, Gentler Apocalypse * 2014
It took me quite a while to realize that California wasn’t going to devolve into yet another dreary, wearisome slog through the worst of humanity. I kept waiting for the rampaging murder-hoards and the baby-eating pillagers but they never really materialized. Part of me missed them, because this is post-apocalyptic fiction and what else are we here for other than to watch people revert to our base animalistic natures when civilization collapses? The thing is, though, that kind of collapse porn wears thin after a bit. I’m not going to read The Road again, you know? I obviously think there is value in examining the hows and whys of societal collapse and what happens to our basic human nature when our structures fall apart on us. There just comes a point where there are other aspects to apocalyptic stories which don’t necessarily center on human depravity.
This is not to say that California shies away from violence or humanity’s capacity for atrocities and horror. There are scenes of violence and betrayal. There are allusions to roving gangs of violent marauders that popped up after civilization fell apart. The difference between this book and any number of other stories of the post-apocalypse is that California doesn’t focus on those things to the point of fetishization. The violence exists and is part of the world, but it isn’t the most important motivator for the people inhabiting that world. They’re more interested in cooperation and relationships than vengeance and warfare. They’re more interested in moving forward than cowering and waiting for the worst to befall them. That said, the motivations of the primary characters are all over the place, and include harnessing the power of violence to consolidate their own power. The point is that California doesn’t dwell on how terrible everything and everyone is. The novel accepts the state of the world and moves forward from there.
Let’s get a little more specific before moving past the break and openly discussing the story. California is told from the perspective of Frida and Cal, a young married couple who fled from the decaying city of Los Angeles to live in a little hut in the woods. The apocalypse which triggered the collapse of society is unclear, but none of the characters seem overly surprised that it happened. The only thing certain about the state of the world is that there was no single big event that caused everything to fall apart. There’s no asteroid, or nuclear war, or devastating plague. From all appearances, it seems that civilization collapsed under its own weight due to a combination of various factors (this, of course, is the most realistic cause of a future societal collapse). Civil incompetence, late-stage capitalism, global warming, it’s really not that important. All that matters is that Frida and Cal live in a rough-hewn shack in the forest and that they are each other’s only source of companionship and survival.
The novel switches back and forth between Frida and Cal’s perspective, so it’s a good thing both are solid characters with their own distinctive worldview. They’re a team, but they get sick of each other sometimes. You know, like a married couple. When we are first introduced to them, their biggest concern is boredom and anxiety. They deal with both of these things by having sex a real whole lot. This, inevitably, ends with Frida pregnant and the state of their little world thrown into flux. Cal would like to stay put in their little corner of the forest, since he believes that there is safety in isolation. Frida would prefer to find other people they can rely on in order to give her child the best chance at life. Eventually the decision is taken out of their hands, and the decisions get considerably more difficult.
The first third of California is mostly dedicated to establishing Frida and Cal’s personal histories, and why they are the way they are. There are a lot of flashbacks which flesh out their early relationship, but also about Cal’s college days at a place called Plank College. It’s here that Cal met Micah, Frida’s sister. It quickly becomes evident that Micah has played a major role in both Cal and Frida’s life. They both ruminate on memories that center around this very intelligent and enigmatic dude. Then, eventually, we learn that he is dead. Micah is not a victim of the general social collapse, however. He is dead because he was a suicide bomber, blowing himself up and taking some random people with him for a cause. That cause is never exactly clear, though. Micah isn’t in ISIS, his death wasn’t a religious statement. Nobody in the family, including Frida, actually knew what he hell it was all about. There were whisperings about a shadowy rebel association known as – wait for it – The Group. They’re socialists or something, but again their aims are never made particularly clear. Micah was apparently way into it, though, considering he gave them his life in order to pursue their aims.
Except of course he didn’t. There’s no way that an author is going to spend that much time flashbacking to a character and not pull the “but wait, who’s that” twist. Obviously Micah is still alive, and it’s with his reintroduction to Frida and Cal’s life that California shifts its focus from a single couple to a reimagining of social order. You see, in the time that Micah has been “dead,” he’s been extremely busy. While Frida and Cal were escaping the crumbling remains of Los Angeles, Micah was pushing forward his plans for a new, safe, self-sustaining community. It’s roughly Communistic in nature, and even have a thing called “Morning Labor,” but it is mostly successful. Eventually we find out that in order to found this community, called The Land (and these names sound exactly something like a writer who is bad at coming up with names for things would use, I know my own), Micah had to get up to some rough shit. You see, there used to your typical post-apocalyptic roving gangs of rapey, murdery pirates out there. But then Micah killed one and chopped his dang head off in order to establish the notion that The Land is not to be fucked with.
California is a novel about secrets even more than it is a novel about social structures, although the character’s propensity for keeping things from each other is rather the foundation of the kinds of structures they both came from and create. Cal learned about nearby people and didn’t tell Frida. Frida got preggers and didn’t tell Cal right away. Micah obviously kept his own death a secret from his sister and best friend. Likewise, Frida and Cal keep the baby a secret from Micah and his paranoid new community. Of course all these secrets inevitably come out and fuck people, because that’s what secrets do. Frida and Cal’s relationship survives while they are both expelled from Micah’s experiment in social unity. Micah saves both of their lives, and sets them up in a more stable social structure, known as a Community (I know). Of course, The Center at Pines is not exactly an ideal place for free expression. It is, in fact, a draconian gated community committed to emulating the ideals of 1950’s white suburban Americana. Yet it is relatively safe and relatively comfortable. The baby will be able to live and grow. The unasked question is, of course, into what? California doesn’t have any answers for you. Frida and Cal seem to have chosen safety over freedom, but what does that mean in a post-apocalyptic world? This novel works so well because it challenges your assumptions and your convictions without trying to pass judgement on its own characters.