Monday, August 10, 2015
10 MInutes About "California" By Eden Lepucki
So instead of reading To Rise Again this weekend, I was going to continue with Kurt Vonnegut, whose Welcome To The Monkey House contains very little science fiction, even for Kurt Vonnegut, whose science fiction has always been more fiction than science. Most of the short stories are almost Cheever-esque, perhaps with a few more twists than Cheever put in. In fact, Cheever's The Swimmer is Vonnegut-esque, so the two maybe have more in common than I would have thought at the start of that sentence.
In fact, Cheever had a story called The Enormous Radio, in which a woman's husband bought her an (enormous) radio that actually played conversations from other apartments in the building. The wife becomes more and more obsessed with this, while the husband spends too much money trying to fix the problem, and that worries him. This slowly tears at the husband and wife, who were happy before (or seemed to be; it's not clear whether the radio makes them unhappy or merely exposes their unhappiness.
Vonnegut's collection includes a story called Next Door in which a boy, left home alone for the first time, hears a loud radio from next door, and then a couple fighting over the sound of the radio. He gets more and more scared that the couple will hurt each other, so he calls the radio station and requests a song from the husband of the couple to the wife of the couple. This has disastrous and mildly surprising results.
So there's a more direct crossover between them, although saying that writers in the 40s-60s were connected because radios featured in their stories would be like saying writers today were connected because their characters used laptops, I suppose.
There is a husband and wife (how's that for a segue!) in California, too. Two husbands and two wives, so far, and lots and lots of dread. I began California because even Vonnegut's non-scifi stuff tends to be rather depressing, and I wanted something a bit different. California was not really the thing to choose, then: it's also depressing, already, but in a slightly different way.
At the start of the book, Frida and her husband Cal have abandoned Los Angeles, which (along with all of society) appears to have fallen apart nearly completely, and are living in a shed in the woods, where they've been for three years. They are trapping food (a bit) and growing food, and Frida has just discovered she's pregnant, which makes her remember when they met their neighbors a few years before -- 'neighbors' being a loose word for the distant acquaintances whose family of four also lives in the woods (and built the shed Frida and Cal are living in, and also who spied on Frida and Cal at awkward times -- and told Frida about it).
There's so much that's weirdly sad in the book, already. It's like a kaleidoscope, or maybe like looking at a brilliant, detailed miniature world that has fallen on the floor and shattered into barely-identifiable pieces. Frida has a turkey baster, made of glass, wrapped up and hidden with her 'artifacts,' one she bought just before the two abandoned Los Angeles, and which she keeps hidden from Cal. There's a traveling junk trader who gets tense when people ask him too many questions period. There's the vague, unsettling talk of just how far society has gone down hill -- stores that only took gold, medicines being only for the rich, malls overtaken by trees (or possibly). And it's all recent: Frida and Cal have been in the woods three years (having driven there and then driven their car as far away as the empty gas tank would let them, to lead people away from where they are living/hiding.)
I mentioned that I liked Footfall because it wasn't post-apocalyptic, but apocalyptic. I like stories that take place during the fall of civilization. A writer on IO9 recently suggested that we like postapocalyptic stories in part because of the possibility of relief they present: in a post-apocalyptic world, we might have to fight mutants or wander a desert or maybe get kidnapped by Charlize Theron or whatever, but we wouldn't have to watch our inbox fill up with emails and pay credit card bills and register for school and the like. The idea is that there would be almost a sense of freedom to a postapocalyptic world.
I'm not idiot enough to think I'd do well in something like that; as I've often said, my own skillset would qualify me for 'monster bait' after the end of the world. (In another Larry Niven book, a Senator helps set up a new society after the end of the world from a comet; he's picked because he knows the law and everyone respects him. So maybe there's hope for me.) And post-apocalypses make me sad because I think of how hard life would be. I have kids; I can't imagine raising kids in a wasteland glowing with nuclear fallout.
That's one of the things that is weird and depressing and scary already in California: Frida is pregnant, and their neighbors (?) have two kids. When they first meet, the neighbor lady asks Frida whether she is going to get pregnant, and when Frida hesitates -- after all, the world is falling apart-- the neighbor says "You didn't come out here to die, did you?" I sympathized with Frida: you wouldn't want to feel like you are giving up, but would you bring a kid into a dead world? Or a dying one? I know that the world Frida and Cal are living in seems kind of like pioneer times, but I don't romanticize pioneer times any more than I do postapocalyptic worlds. I'd have hated the 1880s, too. I'd have disliked anything before about 1957, I suspect.
What's more interesting to me is the why of liking apocalyptic stories. Following that IO9 writer's idea, I spent some time wondering about why I might find these stories enjoyable, if a bit depressing. Probably it's because I've got so much going on, especially over the last year or so. If life is hectic, or hard, or challenging, it can be escapist to see how people deal with even harder troubles. It's a lot worse, I suppose, to have elephants invade the Earth or have to flee the cities after some (as yet unknown) disaster than it is to try to fit into a new firm or have a jury trial or worry about whether I'm doing everything I can for Mr F or Mr Bunches. So reading books like this may be a way of putting my own life into perspective.