The Short Version: Cal and Frida left Los Angeles as the world continued to crumble and struck out for the wilderness. They made a relatively happy home for themselves – but when Frida gets pregnant, they decide to seek refuge amongst others in a settlement not far from their humble abode. But everyone seems to be keeping secrets and maybe they might’ve been safer on their own…
The Review: You’ve probably heard about this book because Stephen Colbert used it to launch his assault against Amazon.com – but you should be hearing about it because it’s the best dystopian novel to grace the printed page in a very, very long time. Edan Lepucki has taken a somewhat creaky genre and reinvigorated it by keeping it simple, not relying on fantastical conceits but instead thinking realistically (in a terrifying way) about what the future of 30-40 years from now might look like.
In many ways, this book is making old things new again. The broad outlines of this story, if you took a couple of specifics away, could be applied to settlers pushing West 250 years ago – or to people fleeing repressive governments or plagues many hundreds of years ago. It is the story of a small community and of its rules – and of outsiders who come into the community and, through the very act of their entry, set off a chain of events that will disrupt that community. It is an old story and well-worn but Lepucki uses it with skill here: it felt like I was hearing the story for the first time.
As with any novel not set in the world you currently understand, world-building is crucial – but Lepucki does, in a way, exactly the opposite. This is world-deconstruction. Take our present, fast-forward a couple of years. What do you expect to see? Smarter phones, more crazy weather, oil shortages, crop failure, increasing income inequality… sounds about right, right? So imagine then the kids who’ll be born, say, ten years from now. My kids, realistically. Imagine them in their late twenties. What does the world look like for them? And maybe its just because I recognized so clearly that the characters in this book: Micah, Frida, Cal… they could, in fact, be my kids. And more likely than not, this is what the world is going to look like for them. Perhaps it won’t fall apart so rapidly – it does seem, at times, as though a series of truly unfortunate events hit the country in pretty startling succession (snowstorms, hurricanes, earthquakes, etc. – all in the span of maybe a dozen years or less) – but maybe it will. And with the rapidly widening gap between the haves and have-nots… the Communities seem like an obvious answer for where things go from here.
But isn’t there something beautiful, too, about the idea of going back to the land? Maybe not of striking out on your own – dangerous and scary to say the least – but of perhaps “settling” some place, as the ‘real’ settlers once did. Working the land, providing for yourselves. It seems perhaps not ideal but certainly do-able, even maybe preferable to the continued rape and pillaging we (as humanity) seem to be doing regularly. Certainly preferable to all-out apocalypse.
As interesting as the world-building and the facts of this all-too-near future are (there’s a lovely Easter egg of sorts where a character mentions, in passing, a “posthumous Franzen novel” and I cracked a huge smile), they’d only be set dressing if the characters didn’t succeed – and they do. The two main character, Frida and Cal, are relatively ordinary people. Yes, Cal went to a bit of a hippy-dippy college but other than that, they seem like exactly what you’d expect from late-twentysomethings. The flashes of their lives before leaving LA feel rooted in the insecurities and banalities of life in the modern era – and their relationship out in the woods feels real. Of course they’re having sex all the time: they love each other and there’s nobody else around. This is exactly what a twentysomething would do. But they also grapple with the issues that any relationship deals with: trust issues, the question of parenthood, the simple fact of two people sharing their lives together and the friction that can come from that. As frustrating as both of them could be, you couldn’t ever really side with either of them per se because, well, they both were right in some ways. This is a deeply human story and it is so refreshing to see such humanity in a dystopic setting – to see ordinary humanity instead of people facing down Goliath-sized adversaries. The scope of this story is small: it’s a single couple, a single community, a single small corner of the world. Perhaps stories like this are happening elsewhere – perhaps other states are reacting entirely differently. Who knows – and it doesn’t matter, because Lepucki keeps the story rooted and our minds never wander to the larger world.
That said, there are definitely larger things at play here and if Lepucki isn’t considering another novel in this future… well, I hope that she is. The Group – a sort of Occupy-gone-aggressive, taking cues from Augusto Boal’s Theater of the Oppressed and religious extremism in equal doses – seems to have a plan to redress the imbalance in this crumbling society… but can that work? Are they stuck in the past, with that line of thinking? It’s not about getting their Devices (another brilliant touch – it’s not a phone anymore, we all know this, so why not call it what it is: a device) back – because that world seems, truly, to be gone if not for good than at least for the considerable time being. So would tearing down the Communities work? Or would it just bring us all that much closer to the real darkness inside of ourselves? That’s the crux of it, really – and we see it play out, all facets of the argument, within this tiny community. And how marvelous a thing to see. Maybe there’s hope for humanity yet.
Rating: 4 out of 5. A refreshing and even dare-I-say original take on the dystopic/post-apocalyptic genre. Except this apocalypse isn’t one major thing but rather the accumulated feedback of lots of things – which is how our own apocalypse might well look. The future that Lepucki imagines here is more realistic than any I’ve yet read in novels of the future – and that scares the hell out of me. And yet, she finds that her characters retain heart and bravery and love and that gives me hope that maybe, just maybe, the end of the world as we know it won’t be so bad after all. And I hope my kids are as brave as Frida and Cal when they hit 2050 and things look like this.