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California by Edan Lepucki. 400pp, Little, Brown and Company (CLICK HERE)

I want to be very careful not to write anything herein that would deny a reader their own journey of discovery through Edan Lepucki’s debut novel, California, so, instead of my own synopsis, I will quote from the publisher’s website. Listen:

“In her arresting debut novel, Edan Lepucki conjures a lush, intricate, deeply disturbing vision of the future, then masterfully exploits its dramatic possibilities.” —Jennifer Egan, author of A Visit from the Goon Squad

The world Cal and Frida have always known is gone, and they’ve left the crumbling city of Los Angeles far behind them. They now live in a shack in the wilderness, working side-by-side to make their days tolerable in the face of hardship and isolation. Mourning a past they can’t reclaim, they seek solace in each other. But the tentative existence they’ve built for themselves is thrown into doubt when Frida finds out she’s pregnant.

Terrified of the unknown and unsure of their ability to raise a child alone, Cal and Frida set out for the nearest settlement, a guarded and paranoid community with dark secrets. These people can offer them security, but Cal and Frida soon realize this community poses dangers of its own. In this unfamiliar world, where everything and everyone can be perceived as a threat, the couple must quickly decide whom to trust.

A gripping and provocative debut novel by a stunning new talent, California imagines a frighteningly realistic near future, in which clashes between mankind’s dark nature and deep-seated resilience force us to question how far we will go to protect the ones we love.

I will, however, say this: I hope NEVER AGAIN to read a book in which is presented a world in which new books are no longer available. Listen, if I have to live without books, all I have to say is; “People, eat me first. I am ready to go.” Although I imagine this curmudgeonly old coot would require a week’s worth of slow-cooking in order to achieve anything like tenderizing. But I digress …

When you’ve been blurbed by Jennifer Egan and exalted by Stephen Colbert as one of the collateral damage martyrs in the Hachette Book Group versus Amazon contretemps, you hardly need me to write about your debut novel. In a stroke of prescience (or damned good luck), in her novel Ms. Lepucki named one of the closed off, sponsored, Disney-esque-Celebration(ish) “Communities” reserved for the rich and powerful Amazon.

Another aside so as not to give away plot points: I’ve read my share of dystopian fiction. Of late, however, life in the real world has become uncomfortably close to the “before” of these “after disaster” fictions, as I call them. I had awful dreams while reading California, those half-awake, hallucinatory, fever-induced type, chimerical-night-terrors, during which I kept trying to remind myself; “No, Charlie. You’re safe. The world is a safe place.”

Of course, with what’s happening in Gaza and Ukraine and Congress, what sort of Pollyanna-crack-smoking idiot is going to believe that?

But, back to the book. Why is it that when we – and by “we” I mean we as a society and the authors who voice our Zeitgeist-ian fears – so often fill these “after disaster” worlds with even worse selfishness, hunger for power, duplicity, and betrayal than the “before” world in which we now live? I mean, is it not possible – not even worth hoping for a little bit? – that having destroyed the world once, we might somehow manage to be kinder, better, more creators of light and love in the process of rebuilding? Must every dystopian fiction feature some Bob Jones-ian/Big Brother-ian world where humanity’s basest impulses rule?

Cal and Frida, hero and heroine — or, well, protagonists — of this novel, believe themselves to be alone inhabiting a cabin in the wilderness after having run from a collapsing Los Angeles. Their discovery of other survivors and runaways is fraught with the dangers wrought by the keeping of secrets and unchecked power, those all too human landmines of needing to believe in something – even if that something is one’s own delusionally hope-filled, truth-denying narrative.

Ms. Lupecki has used the post-semi-apocalyptic-framework to write an exploration of all sorts of relationships; romantic, familial, societal and cultural, gender-based, power-based, and, most intensely, the relationship with the self and one’s personal truth. The foundation of uncertainty and hyper-vigilance inculcated in the narrative by its collapsed-society setting creates a level of intensity and life-death desperation in each of those relationships that would be less believable were not every character feeling always in danger of being voted off some cosmic island.

But, I do California an injustice if you leave these paragraphs thinking it’s another near Young Adult “only the strong survive” sort of fantasy-cautionary-tale novel. It’s not. What gives Ms. Lupecki’s tale its heft and heart is the skillful way in which she weaves the histories of the characters into the present (future) moments. The characters are all compromised, as in, real human beings who have made (and continue to make) questionable moral choices which they struggle to justify – some with honesty, some with deceit and denial.

I look forward to more of Edan Lepucki’s writing. I especially look forward to a story in a non-dystopian setting. Honestly people, the real world is near-dystopian enough, I can’t take any more scary, we’re not going to have flush-toilets and potable water and bookstores kind of stories. I admit it; I’m too first-world privileged to survive that.

I purchased Edan Lupecki’s California at my local independent bookstore (where I now hang out most often since giving up tequila) THE CURIOUS IGUANA. Click anywhere in this sentence to go there — and you SHOULD.