In the world of books, the apocalypse is big business — bigger than ever, in fact, with the surge in popularity of young-adult dystopian novels such as the "Hunger Games" and "Divergent" trilogies.
But while those books offer a relatively hopeful vision of life after the world has been upended by war, famine, environmental devastation and so on, there are also other, darker strains of the genre, from Margaret Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale" to Cormac McCarthy's bleak, Pulitzer Prize-winning "The Road."
Edan Lepucki's buzzed-about debut novel, "California," falls somewhere in the middle of that spectrum. The book has received rave advance blurbs from literary heavyweights Ben Fountain and Dan Chaon, among others, while Stephen Colbert has been heavily promoting it on "The Colbert Report," partly to draw attention to the ongoing book-pricing dispute between Amazon and Hachette, the parent company of Lepucki's publisher, Little, Brown.
This piece first ran in Printers Row Journal, delivered to Printers Row members with the Sunday Chicago Tribune and by digital edition via email. Click here to learn about joining Printers Row.
"California" is the story of Frida and Cal, a young married couple whose isolated life in the woods near Los Angeles (which has become too dangerous in a not-so-distant future when the Internet has broken down and car travel is essentially a thing of the past) is disturbed when they realize that Frida is pregnant.
This development sends them in search of the security of human society, which takes them to a paranoid settlement led in part by Micah, Frida's ambitious brother.
Printers Row Journal caught up with Lepucki, 33, a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop and a staff writer for The Millions, for a phone interview from the San Francisco area, where she lives. Here's an edited transcript of our chat.
Q: What attracted you to dystopian fiction?
A: When I decided to write this story — and I don't know if "decided" is the right word, because it just sort of came to me — I knew I was entering into a very rich genre. But I had to put that noise away from me, just to write the book. So when I was working on it, I stayed away from any thoughts of, "What am I in this genre with this long history, that's particularly popular right now?" I hadn't read very many of them, although I recently read the very popular Y.A. ones — "The Hunger Games" and "Divergent," to name two. But it's true that "The Handmaid's Tale" is one of my favorite books. I'd always been so inspired by that novel, and what Margaret Atwood did in that book to make me so afraid and enamored and terrified of this different future, that I think in the back of my mind, I'd always wanted to try it myself. But when I was writing, I had to just focus on the characters and not worry too much about what it meant for the genre.
Q: Why do you think the genre has become so popular?
A: I don't know. I have a pretty dark imagination and I don't think I'm alone in that. I've been thinking of writing an essay about why teenage girls might be attracted to that kind of narrative — although I didn't write one of those. My book is about young married people, not teenagers. But I think being a teenager is a particularly dark period for a lot of girls. There's nothing scarier than becoming a woman, perhaps. So that might explain why the genre is popular among the young set, but as for our general desire for end-of-the-world narratives, I'm not sure.
Q: I think maybe the dystopian novel allows us to entertain certain notions about the future — our future — without committing to the idea that that's really the way things are going to turn out. We may be worried, for example, about climate change or any number of other disasters that might be on the horizon, but if we play out those scenarios in a fictional world of the future, somehow that makes it OK to think about.
A: I heard an interview with Zadie Smith once where she talked about fiction as a "hypothetical ethical arena" — I just love that phrase, a lovely set of words — in which we enter into the consciousness of a character and see what they would do in certain circumstances without actually having to face the danger ourselves. I think you could extrapolate from there the emotional hypothetical that you get from reading a story about what the world would be like if X, Y and Z. Definitely in my book, I'm trafficking in all these anxieties that I have, and I think a lot of people have, about climate change or the disparity between the wealthy and the not-wealthy and so on. So it's definitely a way to work through our anxieties and think about, if we continue on certain trajectories, what will happen. It's thrilling, but there's also a relief in that, being able to enter that space and then return to safety, as it were.
Q: Of course, there's the near future and the distant future. Your book seems to be set in the fairly near future; it could theoretically happen 10 years from now.
A: It's set about 40 years in the future, whereas, say, "Divergent" or "The Hunger Games" are set further away. But a lot of readers have mentioned how close it feels, which is something I don't take solace in at all. (Laughs.) I wrote the book before Hurricane Sandy happened, or the Boston bomber, for example, both of which echo the book a little too closely, which is a little uncomfortable and unsettling. But one of my intentions was to make the future feel not that far off, which makes it a lot scarier than something that feels like it could only happen very far in the future, rather than just a year or two down the road if we're not careful.
Q: Your book looks not only forward but backward in time, to the back-to-the-land aspects of the 1960s counterculture.
A: Well, that wasn't really intentional, but my parents were hippies, so maybe that's in my DNA. (Laughs.) My mom went to Woodstock, but they're not like the former hippies you see in Berkeley. They look like reformed hippies, but they come from that upbringing and they were into the Dead and all that stuff. Some of the back-to-the-land stuff was inspired by what some people call the Brooklynization of the world — the movement toward the handmade, the artisanal, the smaller community as a stay against everything corporate, machine-made and inhuman in a globalized economy. I'm attracted to all that, but also suspicious of it in some ways, because it's not too long before "artisanal" things aren't really artisanal anymore. But it's also true that we're living in this international world that's moving too fast, where you can't really feel any connections. And you know, if the Internet didn't work anymore and there was no way to travel, how small would the communities get?
Q: You mentioned "The Handmaid's Tale," which envisions a future theocracy. Once Cal and Frida make their way to the settlement in your book, it's interesting that there are mentions of certain communities where, for example, abortions are illegal because of religious objections. So society is no less ideological, you might say, in this world you've imagined, than the one we live in now.
A: True. I've only made it more fractured. All the evangelicals have gone into their own communities based on their beliefs, which is not that different from what we have now, where people of certain beliefs cluster in certain places.
Q: Perhaps the central anxiety of the main characters is whether it makes sense to have a child, given how difficult life is. Is it fair to the child, really, to be brought into a world where there's so much privation and danger?
A: Exactly. I get a lot of different reactions to that element of the book. There are some people who find the idea of not being allowed to have a kid really horrible; how could you not let humans reproduce, because they're in love and they want a family and so forth. And then there are people who completely understand certain policies — we don't want to go any further because of spoilers — and find that they make perfect sense. But it's a question that most people wrestle with. My husband and I have a son who's 3, and that's always been part of our conversation. Maybe we're more pessimistic than other couples, but I feel like any time you decide to bring another human being into the world, it's so daunting because the question is, is the world getting worse or better? It's probably getting worse in some ways and better in others.
Q: Another way to measure dystopian fiction is how grim it is. If "Divergent" is on one end of the continuum and Cormac McCarthy's "The Road" on the other end, where would you put "California"?
A: (Laughs.) It's interesting to have Veronica Roth and Cormac McCarthy as part of the same spectrum.
Q: Cormac McCarthy would probably say that "The Road" has a happy ending. Compared to some of his other novels, let's say.
A: That's true. (Laughs.) I would put my book squarely in the middle. I feel like books like "Divergent," although they're dark, they have an element of fantasy that's empowering for the heroine and the reader. We always feel the person narrating is special, marked in some way, and that a new and better world will come out of this experience. Whereas "The Road," things are pretty bleak from start to finish. I feel like the world in my book is not as bleak. There are some jokes in my book. And there are no cannibals. (Laughs.) All three of the books take place in the future, but they all feel very different to me, obviously. "Divergent" is an action-adventure story, "The Road" is a father-son narrative, and my book is about things that happen in a lot of marriages in various places and times.
Q: It could happen any time, anywhere.
A: Give or take a few things, sure. Actually, a lot of the world-building happened during revisions, because that's not my strength. In the first draft, I really just focused on Frida and Cal and Micah, thinking about Frida and Cal's relationship — how the circumstances affected it — because that's what I felt comfortable writing. And then later I let the world coalesce around them and added a lot more details about what had happened to L.A.
Q: Once Frida and Cal move to the settlement and get involved in things there, I was reminded of the Occupy movement. In that sense, it's a book of the zeitgeist.
A: (Laughs.) Accidentally. Some of the book was already written when the Occupy movement sprang up. Then Occupy sort of entered the water, and I drank it, and it became part of the narrative. I was interested in writing about a movement and how those people could be guilty of some of the same things that the "bad guys," however they might be defined, were guilty of. I didn't want anybody to get off easy, because I feared otherwise it would seem too didactic.
Q: One more fairly consistent thread in dystopian fiction is a certain vagueness about the nature of the apocalypse that has befallen the world. In "The Road," for example, McCarthy doesn't really say; it seems as if a nuclear holocaust has occurred, but that's never spelled out. It seems like your apocalypse is really an intensifying of ongoing trends, rather than a specific event.
A: Yeah. I think "post-apocalyptic" is a marketing tool, really. It's a dark speculative novel, and there isn't one specific thing that has occurred to make the world as it is. And that is scarier to me, and more plausible, that things will just sort of break down slowly. And like the characters in "The Road," Frida and Cal are just two people who don't have access to a master narrative of what has occurred. Like the boy and his father in "The Road," they don't know what's happened. They know something has happened, but they don't have all the cards.
Q: Shifting gears a bit, how did the Colbert thing happen?
A: He had Sherman Alexie on his show to talk about the dispute between Amazon and Hachette and how it was hurting writers. Sherman gave Stephen Colbert a copy of my book, a debut novel, as an example of how it would affect young writers in particular. At that point, Colbert seems to have made it his mission to make "California" a best-seller. It's great for me, of course, but I feel bad for the other Hachette authors who aren't getting great publicity like that.
Q: Well, don't look a gift horse in the mouth, especially when the horse is Stephen Colbert.
A: That's what they tell me.
Kevin Nance is a Chicago-based freelance writer and photographer. Twitter: @KevinNance1.
By Edan Lepucki, Little, Brown, 393 pages, $26Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun