California by Edan Lepucki
California is a surprise: a post-apocalyptic novel we remember more for its vision of a family than for its vision of a collapsed America. Imagine The Handmaid's Tale built along the lines of a Tanizaki novel like The Key or a Henry James novel like The Bostonians. Lepucki gives us the political and social satire we expect from the current wave of post-apocalyptic fiction, the cautionary assortment of ravaged settings and authoritarian leaders. But here the satire emerges from a family story of unusual depth. Most post-apocalyptic writing comes across as a nightmare version of the author's pet peeves about the modern world. California feels like it started with the characters.
Frida and Cal are a married couple in their late twenties. The novel grows out of their relationship with each other, and their relationship with Frida's brother, the terrorist and revolutionary Micah. It also brings in Frida's pregnancy, the future child she keeps imagining, conjured up by all her different emotions, from hostility to adoration. The child figures as a ghost, a specter in Cal's mind as well as hers. It haunts everything that happens in the book. The novel goes back and forth between Frida's viewpoint and Cal's, between their conflicting thoughts as they plan their future. Lepucki takes their confusions and self-doubts seriously, and sets their most troubling questions at the novel's center. California asks if we should have children at all, and how much we damage ourselves and the world in the name of marriage and parenthood.
Frida and Cal both move through different answers to those questions in different circumstances. California is a novel of ideas, written by someone with an obviously feminist perspective, but it's not out to score easy polemical points. Our need to score points -- the way we use ideas in our lives -- is instead one of the novel's themes. In their marriage, Frida wants Cal to believe what she believes, just as Cal wants her to believe what he believes. At the novel's start, they're living in the woods after having left Los Angeles. The fall of civilization is well under way: even Canter's has gone out of business. America has been hit by earthquakes, storms, epidemics. But the true collapse has been economic, social. Years earlier, most young people stopped going to college because they couldn't afford it, while the bulk of graduates "had been left with insurmountable debt and no way to pay it back." The rich retreated into the Communities. Members of the Group, to protest the Communities' influence, started blowing themselves up at shopping malls and hospitals. Most of the nation has slipped into poverty and decay.
In reaction, Cal wants to stay away from everyone else. He sees his forest home with Frida as a refuge. The Group's bombers and radicals run an L.A. encampment, an alternative to the Communities. Cal, however, wants no part of it. "Everyone there is giving something up," he says. "We just don't know yet what that something is." The first hundred pages of the novel are in some ways a meditation on the Lawrentian idyll of a man and woman living alone together, separate from the world. Cal wants Frida to be, as her name suggests, Lawrence's Frieda, the woman he loves in isolation from society, with their relationship as the sole truth, the strongest reality. But is Cal's love romantic or controlling? Is it a bold rejection of civilization in favor of passion, or a cowering flight from anything that might threaten Frida's devotion to him? Frida doesn't know, can't make up her mind how she feels about their life in the woods. Cal hides things from her in the name of taking care of her. He thinks he's protecting her, for instance, by not telling her that the settlers who live deeper in the wilderness are capable of violence. Yet the act of trying to protect Frida leads him to doubt both her decisions and his:
He didn't want to scare her, but now she knew so little that she might do something rash. She didn't realize that they had to stay put in order to remain safe. Their curiosity would get them killed. How could he tell her that, without revealing all that he'd kept from her?
On her side, Frida knows that Cal is hiding things from her, and she reacts by hiding things from him. She gets stoned with a visiting traveler, August, and tells him about her brother: Micah was one of the Group's original terrorists, and she and Cal have strongly conflicting views on Micah's actions. Later Frida conceals from Cal some of the key facts of her talk with August, and the consequences of this deception spread through the rest of the novel.
The cycle of manipulation and distrust grows more complicated once Frida and Cal decide to leave the woods for the Land, a settlement behind a maze of spike-like sculptures. Frida isn't consistent in her beliefs, and neither is Cal in his. By turns both of them are understanding and stubborn, cautious and impulsive, selfish and giving. The intricacy of their relationship, the skill with which Lepucki builds the complexity of their bonds, is California's major triumph. Their marriage allows her to present the novel's world with unusual suppleness, since the way we interpret the events around Frida and Cal changes as their feelings bend and twist. After they arrive on the Land, Frida's pregnancy puts them in a harsh practical position. The Land turns out to be run by Micah's brother. He has established a strict rule against children being raised there. Cal's first reaction is sharp: "A place that banned children had to have a streak of insidiousness at its center." But Frida is more eager to join the Land than to become a mother: "She didn't want the baby anymore. Just like that, she gave up that future. She was ashamed by how easily she let it go." As she and Cal spend more time on the Land, however, Cal becomes increasingly involved in the all-male leadership. Meanwhile, Frida begins to value her pregnancy, and to have misgivings about staying with the settlers. She learns that Micah and the men under his command hold their power through providing protection against violent raiders, the Pirates. Micah claims that they would, if unopposed, kill all the adults and abuse or recruit any children. One of the reasons Micah gives for the ban on children is to protect them from the Pirates' attacks. He also feels that the Land doesn't yet have the ability to take care of kids, to provide proper food or medicine for them. More generally, there's an ideological streak to the ban. One of Micah's followers, Sailor, tells Cal, "I'm not ready to be a parent, and in this world, I wouldn't want to be. Not ever. Micah says if we don't have the example of fatherhood to follow, we won't seek out that path. I think he's right."
Eventually Frida becomes convinced that the ban mainly reinforces Micah's ability to hold his position as the Land's leader. Still, as with everything else in the novel, this conclusion is problematic. Micah's devotion to manipulating and deceiving others plays off against his ability to manipulate and deceive himself. You can't really say that he and the other characters in California are self-serving, because the self they serve is always changing. Their motives are always in flux. Micah hates the Communities but depends on them, plans their destruction but collaborates with them. His relationship with the mutating social order around him is never fixed: each position he takes contains its own resistance, the prospect of his opposition. Just as Frida and Cal twine around each other in coils of devotion and mistrust, the Land and the Communities and the Pirates have started growing together, a lush tangle of violence and cooperation and betrayal.
In the end Frida and Cal leave the Land so that they can have their baby. Micah arranges for them to go to Pines, one of the Communities that works with Micah and his followers. Pines turns out to resemble many of the expensive and sheltered neighborhoods that exist in California right now. Frida is in her final trimester. She will stay at home and raise the baby while Cal works as a consultant for Pines University:
She and Cal, they were lucky. Frida knew she was thinking only of her own family, that she had begun to see them as special: separate from the rest of the world with all its attendant suffering and corruption. Maybe it was wrong. But it was the choice she had made.
By this point we understand Frida's decision, even though we also know the things she has chosen to ignore: the injustice and insecurity and bloodshed on which Pines is built. Pines feels safe, and Frida clings to the feeling but realizes it calls for some deliberate blindness on her part. "Her job," she thinks, "was not to ask any questions." California asks the questions that Frida ultimately won't, helps us look at what we don't want to see. Yet it also steers us away from any glib answers that might act, in the novel's scheme, merely as variations on Frida's final self-deception. The most common weakness of post-apocalyptic fiction -- the flipside of its satirical strength -- has been its habit of moralistic oversimplification. California avoids that habit. Lepucki doesn't oversimplify our future. She makes it as intricate and perplexing as our present.
California by Edan Lepucki
Little, Brown and Company