Tuesday, September 01, 2015
10 Minutes About My Theory About What The Theme Of "California" Is
But I'm better, a bit, today!
First off I should say that I do not believe in themes or metaphors or similes or synecdoches, the latter of which is a very very specific kind of comparison that I remember from like 10th grade English. A synecdoche is when you use a part to represent the whole of a thing. The specific example I remember had something to do with a claw representing the whole crab. I think it was in a Tennyson poem.
I remembered all of that without looking a single thing up. Now I am going to see if I can go track down that particular synecdoche.
Rats. It was T.S. Eliot in "The Love Song Of J. Alfred Prufrock."
So the point is that I rarely believe that authors deliberately set out to have their story be an extended metaphor for this or that, or have a theme, or allow their poem to be a comment on something. The reason I refuse to generally believe that is (a) where are all the authors' notes saying oh by the way this poem is actually about the proposal that the US switch to the silver standard, and (b) whenever people do try to have a deliberate theme/metaphor, it comes across as hamhanded and clumsy.
That said, I think there was a theme, or message, to California, which I finished, and I'm not sure if Eden Lepucki intended this to be a theme, or even if she would agree with me that this is a theme, but I'm pretty sure I nailed it.
The theme is that even a suspicion of privilege and luxury will tear a society apart.
Maybe I've been too drawn in by the way we almost, almost had a decent class war about two years back. Remember #Occupy? Remember the 1%? Remember how our economy got destroyed completely and then all the government money went to help the rich out while the rest of us struggled through? I know, ancient history, right? But I felt like America was really really close to righting some wrongs back then, all those many (5) years ago, before Obama turned into another irrelevant second-term president (we should just impose limits of 1 term, or remove the restriction entirely. The only president to accomplish anything in his second term was FDR) and before America got distracted by arguing about how we'll never take away anyone's guns/impose reasonable restrictions on the police, regardless of how many innocent people die in the streets while their families watch.
*whew* Deep breath.
I've never really stopped thinking about how we need a good (nonviolent) French Revolution in this country, and California seems to depict what will happen if we don't have one -- and why, perhaps, our basic natures will never let us have a really good society, anyway. Not that we couldn't have an okay one, but that's all it will ever be, in Lepucki's mind.
Mild spoilers ahead. Lepucki never does explain exactly what happened to the world; it remains mystifying how things fell apart, and even how apart they are. At one point there's a discussion of the Communities (rich enclaves separated from the rest of society) importing things from Mexico, but that's really the only mention of the rest of the world.
Other mysteries get solved, and in the end, the plot hinges on the tiniest, tiniest possible device you could imagine. Apocalypse, as I've said before, means revelation -- not destruction, the way people think of it. Translated as literally as possible, it means the disclosure of something hidden. That makes California both the most literal apocalyptic book I've read, and the one that works on the smallest scale. While the world is falling apart, for much of the book we're alone (or mostly alone) with Cal and Frida, and Frida may be pregnant, too. When they venture past their house and meet people living on "The Land," they realize both how much they missed society, and also why they didn't always miss it. "The Land" is a group of people living in a sort of commune formed by moving into an old ghost town that used to be a tourist attraction. While superficially it's peaceful and pleasant, there are (of course!) warning signs and unsettling things, like how everyone is more or less the same age except for a few people. Cal and Frida go to "The Land" through a maze of almost-sculptures that look like massive spikes, and then are taken in and given a week or so to fit in before the settlers on The Land vote whether or not to let them stay.
Cal and Frida each at various points after arriving realize how much they like it -- there are amenities like razors, and cocoa powder -- and how much they miss their life with just the two of them. (Which sort of echoes what I said a while back about how post-apocalyptic books may be popular because they represent an extreme form of escapism, getting away from the humdrums of our daily lives commuting and paying bills, etc.)
In the end, the real threat (I'm being careful not to spoil too much because you should read this book) comes not from any particular outsider or group or person (although there is some of that) but from the way people resent any luxury anyone else even possibly may have. There are still haves and have-nots in The Land, and in the post-apocalyptic world in general, although what they have (or not) may be wildly different than what we value nowadays. Regardless, Cal and Frida, and the people on The Land, and everyone, continue to sort and resent others based on perceived luxuries and privileges, and that's what leads to the climax of the book, which is both thrilling and, as I said, oddly small, in a personal kind of way.
California is sort of a companion to Footfall: where Footfall showed a world ending (or changing, revealing itself) on a grand scale, California homes in on the smallest aspects of that same kind of thing. Two people, sharing moments like when they realize that they have hot water, or that one has found a favorite pillow again, and then trying to navigate a world that hasn't changed enough to become unfamiliar in a reasonable way: it's all the little shifts that make California so terrible. If it were just a wasteland a person's mind could cope better, maybe, but with everything seeming just almost right, it's somehow worse. The entire country has become an uncanny valley, and people really spend their time trying to preserve their old way of life, even when doing so means that they're doomed to fail.
California tells a really haunting story about people who have given up their futures to try to cling to a past they didn't even like. Part of it is the past they can't let go of, the class divisions and petty and grand resentments and suspicions that someone, somewhere, is living better than they are and shouldn't be; the other part of it is the past as they've idealized it, stuck in glycerine, recreated in clumsy ways. The two combined mean that the future of the society in the book will likely kill itself well before whatever calamity has befallen the world.
It's a chilling message wrapped into what would seem to be a heartwarming tale. The ending is a morbid, cold twist on Hollywood's happy ending. It's not happy at all, and you'll only understand why if you read it. Which you should.
I know this is sort of jumbled. I'm still sort of tired and haven't sorted it all out yet. It's a book that not only was enjoyable to read, but made me think, in a very good way. It's the kind of book that sticks with you and has the potential to change how you view the world. It's revelatory, in that way. It's apocalyptic.