Monday, August 24, 2015

10 (More) Minutes about "California" and its apocalyptic marriage.

I'm about 1/2way through California and there are two things that I find both fascinating and compelling about the book.  First is how nothing seems to happen and yet the story keeps just pulsating forward with energy, and the second is how the book seems to really be about Cal and Frida's relationship.

The latter first: As I might have mentioned the last time I talked about this book, it's an apocalypse-happening book.  Civilization hasn't completely broken down: there are walled-off communities and there is still electricity and consumer goods and gasoline, but people can't afford anything and something like 2/3 of the people in the US' Midwest and South have died in blizzards.  (There is also no mention, ever, of other countries.) While the end of society seems pretty far advanced, it's not dead yet.

All of this is told matter-of-factly and as part of the story: Cal's mom died in the blizzards, and Cal and Frida sold their heirloom wedding rings to get enough money to buy gas to leave LA, and as we get these details little bits and pieces slip in about the world at large, so while it's exposition, it's done in a stylish way that doesn't detract from the book.

The more I read, though, the more I keep thinking there are parallels between society and Cal and Frida's marriage: just as we don't really know what happened to the US (it seems to be a mix of scarce fuel and global warming, maybe, destroying the economy as well as people, but that's just a guess), we don't really know much about Cal and Frida's marriage or relationship.  Their story jumps back and forth from how they met (at Cal's school where Frida's brother Micah, a terrorist who blew himself up in a bombing at a mall, just after saying, cryptically, "Listen") to their life now to their life in LA to their childhoods, and each new piece of information subtly changes the way we look at both Cal and Frida.  It's really, really well done.  I once wrote a book in which I deliberately jumped the story back and forth to give the reader a feel for how we actually get to know people: when you meet someone, you don't just get their whole life story chronologically. You get some information up front and then get to know them in everyday life while getting little bits of history here and there. I think I did pretty well at that task, but Eden Lepucki is so much better at it that it leaves me kind of in awe.  She makes characters sympathetic and then unlikeable and then mysterious and then back again, all in a few chapters.

As she does that, too, there's more and more a sense of uneasiness about their marriage. At the start of the book the marriage seems like a rock, just a solid piece of emotion that holds fast in a weird upturned world, but now, halfway through, the marriage feels like it's ready to break apart, almost, if it was ever together. I don't know if I'm reading too much into it, but the parallel feeling between the marriage and what happened to society is really amazing, and unsettling: this couple, who a reader will start out liking and rooting for, suddenly is not such a great couple at all and may not have much future. Or they do.

That feeling, the uneasiness, is the hallmark of the book.  It almost feels like there is something big around the corner, at all times.  Not like in a horror movie, say, where a character is about to look in a mirror or open a door and you can feel that the monster is going to appear.  There's just a feeling of dread, mixed with excitement. I mentioned before, I know, that post-apocalyptic books represent a kind of freedom, a release from society's strictures.  There's an element of that here, and that's where the excitement comes from.  Cal and Frida are free to form a brand new kind of life without any interference.

But dread, too, because it's clear they're just on the edge of survival: we keep getting information about how little food they have, and how cold it gets.  I won't provide any spoilers, but Lepucki also keeps shifting the information around, revealing bits and pieces of the story so that your expectations are constantly mixed around.

I said that nothing much happens, which is not quite true. There are big events that take place, but they seem muted, distant, less immediate than Cal and Frida's own struggles for survival and struggles with themselves and each other.  The first really big thing just happened to the couple, and while it's inarguably a big deal in the book (again, no spoilers here), it somehow feels anticlimactic, like this big thing is only a prelude to the next big thing.

The book has an edgy feel to the comfort, like the feeling you'd get if you invited someone you didn't like much to your Xmas party.  It's ... enthralling. That's the word I'd use.  I read it last night until I couldn't even keep my eyes open and then I put the book aside and just laid in my bed thinking about it until I fell asleep.

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