The environment is a disaster. Government has failed. Food is scarce. Untreatable viruses run rampant. Humans have lost the ability to reproduce.
Welcome to the robust genre of post-apocalyptic dystopian fiction, otherwise known as “something really bad happened and now everything sucks.” This subset of science fiction reached its acme in Cormac McCarthy’s 2006 novel, “The Road,” a tour de force that is unrelentingly depressing until the faint glimpse of hope offered on its very last page.
The tension between despair and the smallest possibility of redemption resides at the core of any decent dystopian work, and seeing what we scrappy humans can do when all hope seems lost is the source of the pleasure the genre offers. The main characters — when they’re not busy fighting off feral animals, rising waters or totalitarian regimes — are typically brave, stoic and resourceful, or at the very least meaningfully reflective in their cowardice.
Edan Lepucki has chosen a different tack in her first novel, “California.” Her protagonist, Frida, isn’t much of a heroine. She’s annoying, self-centered and tragically naive. She and her husband, Cal, have fled the ruins of Los Angeles in the wake of earthquakes and financial collapse. As the book opens, they are living in a remote part of the state, foraging and trapping. Hanging over them is the specter of Frida’s brother, Micah, a suicide bomber for a shadowy protest group.
But now Frida has become pregnant, a terrifying prospect when you’re living without electricity in the woods, far from a doctor or a midwife — or even a bottle of antiseptic. It’s clear they can no longer go it alone. So Frida and Cal hike to a mysterious encampment surrounded by strange, forbidding metal structures: the Spikes. Surprisingly, the Spike People let them enter their cultish community, but questions remain as to what their leaders are really up to and how it connects to Micah’s terrorism.
(If this plot sounds familiar, you may be responding to the “Colbert bump”: In June, viewers of “The Colbert Report” were urged to pre-order “California” through the independent bookstore Powell’s as a protest against Amazon’s ongoing conflict with Hachette Book Group, which owns Little, Brown. Amazon chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
Lepucki has armed her novel with a stunning twist, and its fallout is thrilling. Beyond that, the book’s critique of our culture’s ridiculous back-to-the-land fantasies is amusing. Yet some of her choices are less convincing. For example, no matter how much we are told it means to her, I’m still not sure what significance to draw from the “contraband” — a fancy turkey baster — that Frida childishly buys with their meager funds and then smuggles into the wilderness. If you introduce a turkey baster in the first act, it better go off by the end of the third.
Still, Frida’s self-absorption has its uses: For one, it allows Lepucki to detail the minutiae of survivalist life. Until they join the Spike People, who have access to a surprising range of consumer goods, getting clean is impossible, and fungi are free to flourish. “Even her knees had smelled.” Selfishness also means self-preservation, which is a kinder interpretation of Frida’s immaturity. When does caring about yourself cross the line? Frida and Cal might not be the kind of people you’d want to be stuck with at the end of the world, but given how little they seem to care about anyone else, they may have a better shot at making it than most.
Sklaroff is a writer in Washington.
By Edan Lepucki
Little, Brown. 392 pp. $26