Hello readers and welcome to this installment of the (revamped) 2019 Reading List! Last time I took on a contemporary female author I meant to get to in the previous year; this time it was a similar circumstance as Edan Lepucki’s dystopian vision of the west coast has been on my radar ever since it got published in 2014. Readers may recall Lepucki was on the receiving end of the “Colbert bump” and received a lot of publicity for her debut, but after waiting so long to read this I couldn’t help but be disappointed by the many missed opportunities.
As should be known, part of taking a deep dive into these books is to see how they might stack up to my own work. And in the case of California, it is stunning to see the similarities. A world ravaged by climate change, people easily swayed by demagogues, the notion of how humanity might carry its next generations forward; all of these are themes present in my current science fiction manuscript. And yet each time Lepucki uncovers the most interesting parts of her world, she kept returning to the slower aspects of the story that didn’t move it along as well.
The story situates around a young couple (Frida & Cal) attempting to survive by themselves in the California wilderness. Unfortunately, except for a few brief mentions (hurricanes, a huge snowstorm in the Mideast, nothing about the rest of the planet) there is almost no reference to why the land is so barren, so devoid of humans or animals. When the family who was keeping watch over Frida and Cal mysteriously kill themselves, the couple decide to move on to the “Land,” one of many needlessly capitalized words that dot the book (the “Group,” a smartphone-esque “Device,” etc) that should have been better developed. It was almost as if Lepucki understood the bare outlines of how our society and political life was crumbling in the wake of climate catastrophe, but didn’t want to do more than provide a bare outline for the actual plot, which frankly breaks down toward the end. The primary antagonist, who turns up alive after purportedly performing a suicide bomb attack for the Group in Los Angeles, doesn’t seem to have a leadership-related bone in his body and yet the people on the Land look to him as their saviour when he rescues them from the “Pirates,” a roving band of marauders that again are barely developed and have almost no backstory.
If it sounds like I’m trashing this novel, I don’t mean to go that far. But after having a recent manuscript ravaged (rightly so) by my editor, I feel I am much more attuned to the important areas of world building, background and character development, and envisioning how the future might play out. All of these things are quite lacking in this book, and while the writing flows very well (Iowa Writers Workshop graduate Lepucki’s wheelhouse) there was so much about this world I wanted to know more about, and kept hoping would be revealed. The “Communities” are maybe the most dystopian aspect, are talked about for a huge portion of the book, and yet we just see them briefly in the last ten or so pages.
Overall I can’t say I would recommend this novel, but am going to keep reading contemporary female authors as they should be promoted and read. Next up will be another female author: Katherine Dunn’s well-regarded 1989 book Geek Love. And I still hope to get some of the other series (How to Write a Book, What Writers are For) in gear later this year. Thanks as always for reading.
John Abraham is a published author and freelance journalist who lives in the Twin Cities with his wife Mary and their cat. He is writing a speculative dystopian novel and is seeking representation and a publisher.