Back in June, Stranger Genius of literature Sherman Alexie appeared as a guest on The Colbert Report to discuss Amazon's contract dispute with publisher Hachette. Colbert and Alexie discussed the disastrous impact Amazon's refusal to carry Hachette titles was having on young and emerging authors. Established writers like Alexie were taking serious hits to their wallets from Amazon's boycott, but a novelist putting out their debut novel on a Hachette imprint during these difficult months might see their entire career flushed down the toilet due to lack of sales.
Colbert and Alexie chose one such upcoming novel to spotlight: California, by Edan Lepucki. "It's an incredible book," Alexie enthused, about a "United States where an economic/social/political apocalypse has happened," but also a "love story of a young couple who are trying to survive." Colbert announced that through a partnership with Portland independent bookseller Powell's, he'd be making copies of the book available for pre-order on his website.
The plan, Colbert announced, was to land California (Little, Brown and Company, $26) on the New York Times best-seller list without Amazon's help. The plan worked; California debuted at number three on the hardcover fiction list on the week of July 27, and Lepucki is now on a nationwide tour in support of the book. On Tuesday, August 12, she'll be appearing in conversation with Alexie at the downtown library.
So, after all the well-meaning celebrity showboating and anti-Amazon sentiment, how is California? The flip answer would be "pretty good." It's a well-written novel set in an involved and engrossing world, and at times—especially at the end—it's beautiful in the way it portrays the crumbling majesty of a dying empire. But it does go on a bit too long, and the story relies too much on telling and not showing.
California centers on a young married couple named Frida and Cal, and their world is in a strange, suspended state of after. When we meet them, the weather-borne catastrophes that have gutted the United States haven't yet reached the wilderness where the couple makes their home. Or rather, where they barely make their home; they're not especially gifted at survival in the wild. And they're quietly coming apart; the solitude has them picking at each other's raw nerves, so they have nothing but their memories to keep them warm. They met through Frida's brother, Micah, a charismatic young man who was Cal's roommate back in school. Micah died as a revolutionary, and this loss still infuriates the couple.
Usually, she was angry at her little brother for believing that strongly in the Group and its edicts: that money only poisoned people, that government was just bureaucracy, corruption, and oppression, that working wouldn't save them, only engagement would. Micah was always using that kind of language near the end—engagement, engaged.
Frida wrestles with her late brother's engagement as she becomes disengaged from the land, from her husband, from her body. Only when the couple decides to get help from a nearby community—a highly suspicious township interested in, above all, containment, as demonstrated by their surrounding labyrinth of imposing Spikes (Lepucki's capitalization)—do they find themselves faced, once more, with engagement.
Lepucki graces Frida and Cal with a realistic relationship. They get on each other's nerves, but they're still fond of each other. Frida falls in love with Cal when he's not even there: "Such a sweet sight, his clothing, wrinkled and wet, removed from his body. Even when things got difficult between them, doing Cal's laundry made Frida feel a love so tender she could weep."
But still, in the same way that readers of the 1990s eventually grew weary of icy suburbs populated with dark comedy and sly sociopaths, a reader in this decade sometimes wants a vacation from the postapocalyptic landscape. Even California-style literary death-worlds, with their gorgeous depictions of desolation, are starting to grate with their mysterious befores, their boundless suspicion, and their endless capitalizations of simple nouns for emphasis (the Spikes guard the Land, while others live in Communities, and the Group figures into the Plot of the Book, too). Must we end all the time? Can't we write the world whole again? But if we're cursed to linger on our own societal mortality forevermore, we have talented writers like Lepucki to whisper sweet nothingness to us, and passionate readers like Alexie to guide us to our beautiful dooms.