by Zeke Teflon
Due largely to Stephen Colbert’s enthusiastic endorsement of this book during the Hachette-Amazon e-book-pricing dispute last year, I picked up this novel. I made it through a little over a hundred pages before putting it down, unwilling to endure any more of it. So no, I didn’t read the entire thing; this review covers only the hundred-plus pages I read.
California is an example of what all too often happens when academic authors and mainstream (non-sci-fi) publishers tackle catastrophe novels: a literary disaster.
There’s so much wrong with California that it’s difficult to pick a teeing-off point, so let’s start at the beginning. As is immediately noticeable, the primary point-of-view character, Frida, is as dumb as a box of rocks. And dumb characters are rarely interesting. Frida isn’t.
Then, there’s the absurd premise: Frida and her husband Cal leave a decaying Los Angeles and head off by themselves to live in the wilderness (mountains somewhere) having done almost nothing to prepare–they apparently don’t even know how to make animal snares, fish traps, or even how to fish, and didn’t bring along hunting rifles.
How do they survive? Cal is, conveniently, an expert gardener–which spares Lepucki the task of describing how the couple make it in the wild. Cal’s being a gardener might seem like an adequate explanation of their survival to an editor who’s never set foot west of the Hudson, but it’s utterly implausible to anyone who’s familiar with California and the surrounding states, and to anyone who’s done much gardening or farming anywhere. (I’ve lived almost my entire life in the Desert Southwest, Pacific Northwest, and on the West Coast, and I’ve gardened in the Western U.S. for decades.) In short, given her unprepared idiot characters and the conditions in which Lepucki sets those characters, they’d starve within two months, probably less.
Then there’s the societal breakdown that provides the backdrop to the novel. Lepucki provides no social, political, or economic reasons for that breakdown. She just offers brief, fragmented scenes of it devoid of socioeconomic explanations, and also devoid of a political subtext. If she has anything to say, it’s not noticeable in the novel’s first hundred-plus pages.
There are other problems with California, notably the awkward, affected writing. Here are examples from three consecutive pages (pp. 95-97): “He’d shaved his head, and beneath a sharp stubble of hair, his scalp stunned white.” Stunned? “Something jagged snagged Frida’s throat, and she swallowed it down.” Jagged? Snagged? and “Something, someone, was watching her, its breath shaping the molecules between them?” Shaping the molecules? Please.
California is vapid, its premise is ridiculous, its characters moronic, and its writing clumsy and pretentious. Bear in mind, though, that I only read the first third of the book; the rest of it might be a masterpiece. But somehow I doubt it.
Very much not recommended.
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Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia. He’s currently working on the sequel.