Alone at the End of the World: Edan Lepucki’s California

Frida and Cal are riding out the decline of civilization in a remote forest home. When they fled Los Angeles, things had gotten so bad that the last superstore open for business was only accepting gold, “and not jewelry—it had to be melted down already.” The early stages of disaster are revealed in fleeting backward glimpses: LA was brought down by an earthquake that left “collapsed houses and condemned schools everywhere, and the 101 severed in two at the 110,” while Cleveland had been taken out by a mega-snowstorm. But the how and the why of the end of the world are secondary matters where debut novelist Edan Lepucki is concerned. She brings a much more intimate focus to California, zooming in on Cal and Frida as the world (and the past) they left behind proves less distant than they’d thought.

California is a novel of secrets and slow reveals, and it’s hard to say much about what unfolds without giving away key surprises. The young couple think they’re alone in the forest. The one neighboring family is gone, and their only contact now is with a wandering junk peddler named August. Yet Cal does, in fact, know that the outside world is not so far away; he’s simply made a point of avoiding it, until Frida tells him she’s pregnant and they decide they have to make an attempt to reach out to a community bigger than themselves, even if that community is unlikely to want them… or any other outsiders.

The surprise they find when they reach The Land, a settlement a few days’ journey away, barricaded by a maze of towering spikes constructed of seemingly random materials (reminding Frida of the Watts Towers and Cal of a crown of thorns), sets a psychological reversal in motion. Frida, who had eagerly sought out the help of others, is unsettled as she learns more about The Land’s past; Cal, who hadn’t wanted to leave their isolated safe haven, starts to reconcile himself to their new circumstances, looking for ways to work around the threats that present themselves.

Though presented as literary fiction, California reads like a vein of character-driven science fiction I first came to appreciate in the 1980s and ‘90s in outlets like Asimov’s and Fantasy & Science Fiction. The novel wears its speculative conceits lightly—and, of course, in this case the speculative conceit is the absence of futuristic technology, a world where lights powered by car batteries feel unbearably intrusive. The discoveries that Cal and Frida make about The Land are matched, perhaps even surpassed, by the discoveries that they make about each other and their capacity to keep secrets from each other, even when they’re cut off, physically or psychologically, from the rest of the world. That holds true right up to the end, as Lepucki delivers the couple to a superficially safe resting point where some readers may find the novel’s most disturbing undercurrents.

(NOTE: This post originally appeared on Beacon.)

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9 July 2014 | read this |