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The Kansan - Newton, KS
  • Book Notes: A dark tale of California’s future

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  • “California” By Edan Lepucki. Little, Brown and Co., New York, 2014. 400 pages. $26.
    Author Edan Lepucki’s much-talked-about dystopian novel, “California,” cleaves to coincidence and circumscribed imagination. She paints for us a detailed miniature, a small slice of life taken from a larger panorama of mysterious death and destruction. It is mid-21st century in California when we open her book. Storms of all kinds have killed off large populations living in the United States and life has turned dangerous. Though the land in California appears to be fertile and the protagonists find water, most resources and goods are scarce to nonexistent. Pirates rape and pillage. Large swaths of land sit fallow and empty of people. If they’re not dead, you get the feeling they’re slowly withering in dank caves.
    Lepucki drops us into the lives of Cal and Frida, a young couple who fled their dangerous home in Los Angeles for the uninhabited woods and pastureland. No one thing happened that sent them running. Quality of life deteriorated over many years.
    The couple makes a life for themselves off the land, meets another family that survives with greater skill and success, and learns from them. One of the novel’s most interesting story lines has to do with what happens to the family that seems to be doing so well. In fact, this family could be the nexus of a rekindled society.
    We learn that other people do exist, including the purportedly charismatic leader Micah and his small group of middle-aged men and women living at the center of their highly protected enclave. They have erected an elaborate maze of massive spikes, easily seen from all directions, meant to warn off or entrap interlopers. Inside the compound the 40 or so inhabitants bake, farm, confer and live fairly comfortable but rustic lives. Another story line has us wondering what happened to the children they must have had since medication and birth control are just as scarce as everything else.
    Meanwhile, Frida suspects she’s pregnant. She implores Cal to accompany her to the land of the spikes where she suspects people must reside. Pregnancy drives her to take risks in order to join a society. August, an itinerant trader who stops by monthly with small items to sell, sternly warns that any people who live beyond their small farm are violent. They should stay put. Frida, despite a mother’s drive to protect her unborn child, sets off for the spikes with Cal at her side.
    Micah is either mysterious or problematic, depending on how well you respond to this story. He’s said to be vicious and he’s said to be fair. He may be a ruthless killer but maybe he’s compassionate and acting on behalf of the greater good. His charisma and the reasons for his power elude me. The fact that he turns out to be Frida’s brother further disappoints.
    Page 2 of 2 - In a vast new world bereft of safety and resources and ways to communicate, where family members have been annihilated by storms and starvation, people have a hard time adhering to a moral compass. Survival decisions, like those Micah believes he’s making, are fraught with complex considerations — making it difficult to understand, much less find sympathy with, most of the characters in this book. Frida’s fierce attachment to a packaged turkey baster, meant to exemplify the scope and scale of her loss, also fails to provoke a sympathetic response. These characters, like the landscape, lack a mature and rounded definition. The experience of this book is flat, bleak and rather sere.
    Lepucki, the author, thought carefully about the story and laid out a set of story lines that tie up neatly at the end. She’s given us a potentially interesting story but it lacks a juicy middle. There’s always next time for what appears to be a storyteller with potential.
    ——
    Rae Padilla Francoeur’s memoir, “Free Fall: A Late-in-Life Love Affair,” is available online or in some bookstores. Write her at rae.francoeur@verizon.net. Read her blog at /www.freefallrae.blogspot.com/ or follow her @RaeAF.

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