Friday 20 April 2018

Books: No food, no order and no hope in the US in 2050

Fiction: California Edan Lepucki Little Brown, hdbk, 388pp, £21.50

Edan Lepucki
Edan Lepucki

Sometime in the middle of this century, America is virtually in ruins. There's still a central government, just about, but to all intents and purposes the country has been broken apart by environmental catastrophe, rising poverty, social meltdown and the oil running out.

The rich now live in self-contained communities; the poor slowly expire in derelict cities or isolated rural homesteads. There's little food left, little money, little hope of a future.

It's a tremendous setting for a novel, especially if (like me) you love these near-future dystopias. And California, the debut from US author Edan Lepucki, is a very fine book indeed.

The central characters are married couple Cal (short for Calvin, not California, as one person jokes) and Frida.

Having fled LA a few years before, they eke out a basic, agrarian existence in a log cabin, somewhere in the North West. Their only human contact is August, a mysterious traveller who arrives monthly and seems able to get his hands on products long-thought extinct.

Their neighbours, the Miller family, commit suicide, seemingly unable to face the despair anymore. But before dying, dad Bo tells Cal of a series of man-made barriers, two days hence, which suggest an organised settlement of some sort. They suggest society, community, order; a possible fresh start. Cal and Frida, now pregnant, set out with mixed trepidation and optimism. They get there alright, and it exists, yes - but this potential Eden may prove to be more hell than heaven, as new dangers arise and old ghosts spring unnervingly back to life.

The blurb suggests that California is in the vein of Cormac McCarthy's post-apocalyptic classic The Road. It's not quite as overwhelmingly grim as that great novel - the world hasn't fully gone to hell in a handcart, though it might be getting there.

For me, California was more reminiscent of Margaret Atwood's Madd Addam trilogy, especially the opening book, Oryx and Crake. Lepucki's writing is pretty Atwood-esque anyway: literary and elegant in a smooth, unforced way, with that droll sense of humour and a relentlessly clear eye for both personal psychology and macro-trends in society.

And give it another few years, and the world of California might very well disintegrate into the sun-bleached, blood-drenched nightmare of Oryx and Crake.

I had one small caveat, which may reflect more on me than this otherwise exemplary novel: I couldn't fully follow the plot in its final 50 or so pages. Political conspiracies, plot twists and dramatic revelations come fast, perhaps a little too fast; it's not that any of this feels forced or jointed-on, but it wasn't always clear who had done what and why.

But, this may well be deliberate. Ambiguity is the hallmark of great art anyway - it reflects more precisely the uncertain, hazy, sometimes unknowable nature of life itself. California is fractionally short of "great", but it is very, very good.

Darragh McManus' young adult novel, Shiver the Whole Night Through, is 
published on November 6

Available with 
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by calling 091 709350

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