California by Edan Lepucki (Little, Brown and Company, 400pp, $26)
A critical appreciation
by Josh Stephens
The Hollywood & Highland shopping and entertainment complex in Los Angeles is ugly enough to inspire thoughts of violence. The usual chain stores are stacked up behind a facade of ersatz sandstone, with balconies, towers, and escalators running every which way. Its Orientalist motif, replete with hieroglyphics and sculpted elephants, is supposedly drawn from Intolerance, the silent epic by D.W. Griffith, better known for the infamously racist The Birth of a Nation.
A pivotal moment in Edan Lupucki’s recent novel California takes place in the belly of this architectural grotesquerie. Micah, a young revolutionary, detonates a vest of dynamite at the height of the shopping day. Micah’s suicide marks the symbolic end of California’s existence as a state. California reverts to a mere landscape, across which anarchy and chaos are loosed. As in many post-apocalyptic tales, the reasons for the dissolution of government and the breakdown of civil society are vague. We learn of earthquakes, oil shortages, and the day the “Internet stopped working.” The citizens of the former California face three choices: fight it out in the cities; flee into the wilderness; or join fortified, corporate-run “Communities.”
As a journalist covering urban planning in the real California, I can’t help thinking that the modes of living that Lepucki imagines surviving in the state’s ashes can be seen as an extreme exaggeration of the actual choices available to present-day Californians. Even amid the anarchy of California, the central question is the same one that has confounded Californians for generations: where to raise a family?
Micah’s sister Fridah and Micah’s best friend from college, Cal, are the young couple at the center of the novel. They escape the wreckage of Los Angeles, wander northward, and take refuge in a forest. This frontier means little without civilization as its counterpoint. Cal and Frida eke out a safe, but uninspiring existence in the woods. Meanwhile, Los Angeles, beset by violence, bereft of civil society, turns into its own corpse. When Cal tells Frida how “awful” LA has become, Frida imagines all the horrors to which he is referring:
He could have meant LA’s chewed-up streets or its shuttered stores and sagging houses. All those dead lawns…closed movie theaters and restaurants, and the parks growing wild in their abandonment. Or its people starving on the sidewalks, covered in piss and crying out. Or its crime. The murder rate increased every year, and the petty theft was as ubiquitous as the annoying gargle of leaf blowers had once been. The city wasn’t just sick, it was dying.
Lepucki’s Los Angeles suffers in the same way that many real American cities have suffered (some nearly fatally) in the past. From Detroit to Cleveland to New York City to Los Angeles itself, wealthy citizens fled center cities in the latter half of the twentieth century, leaving the poor to hunker down. Lepucki’s apocalyptic vision reads, to this urbanist, like an extreme version of suburbanization and white flight.
Unlike, Micah, who was initially inspired by the chaos, wanting “to rebuild LA, neighborhood by neighborhood,” Cal and Frida believe that the city is beyond salvation.
But the forest inspires no Thoreauvian musings or much pleasure of any kind. Cal and Frida wait out their days, entertaining themselves with a lot of careful sex. But they are not careful enough. When Frida becomes pregnant, they decide that they cannot raise a baby in an empty forest. They set out toward what they can only assume is enemy territory. After many miles, pine trees give way to spikey, threatening totems made of metal and junk. (They remind Frida of LA’s Watts Towers. I imagine them like those cars buried grille-first along Route 66.) These forms create a dense boundary that marks the territory of an unknown tribe of a few dozen refugees eking out a peaceful existence on “The Land,” part-commune, part self-imposed prison, where Cal and Frida are welcomed for one reason: Micah, Frida’s brother and antibourgeois martyr, is their patron saint.
Frida and Cal endear themselves to The Land through hard work, participating in daily Labor. But they still stand apart from the rest of the tribe, particularly because of the secret that Frida is hiding. Unsettlingly, the youngest inhabitants of The Land are gawky, college-age boys. There are no children here. Cal and Frida coax from their neighbors tales of raids by Pirates (capital P),kidnappings, torture, killings, vandalism, rape, and indentured servitude. With their children stolen, no one on The Land wants to bring new life into such a world. Behind their barricades, the people of The Land are simply waiting out a death sentence.
This apocalyptic lifestyle is not as far from reality as it may seem at first glance. Americans are having fewer children, and those who do have children, choose to do it later in life. Cities such as San Francisco are now playgrounds for young adults. If this trend were taken to the extreme, cities might simply slide into retirement communities without ever hearing the wail of a newborn.
Cal and Frida are eventually run off The Land when Frida’s pregnancy is discovered. They flee into an affluent Community called “The Pines.” In Lepucki’s California, forest, city, and The Land all scrape by in the enviable shadow of the Communities. By most accounts, Communities fare better than anyone else. But no one can ever leave them, lest they be gored by Pirates. Adults work; children grow up; boards and management companies see that everything runs smoothly. They have names like “Bronxville, Scottsdale, Amazon, and Walmart.”
The Communities’ dirty secret is that they grant refuge to impoverished outsiders who accept permanent second-class citizenship in exchange for security. From the truly desperate, they purchase children, who are committed to lives of indentured servitude. The late Micah hated the Communities; they made him “murderously angry.” Frida, however, is drawn to them—she “had always been fascinated by the Communities, the secret life behind their walls, their riches and beauty all conjecture.”
The best of the bad options in California looks a lot like what was considered the best of the best of California post–World War II. Lepucki writes:
Pines was supposed to remind you of a bygone world that no one living had seen firsthand: cookouts and block parties, paperboys and school recitals. Daddies who took the trolley home, mommies who had put up their own wallpaper….all the mothers stayed home to bake cakes and whatever else mothers did at Pines. Women were expected to devote everything to raising a family.
Lepucki crafts this description with obvious irony, simultaneously taking aim at her beleaguered protagonists, the naïve families of the 1950s, and present-day Californians who cling to an outdated conception of the American dream. On that last count, Lepucki is in good company with a new generation of planners, scholars, and activists. On the other hand, Cal and Frida’s choice to join The Pines could be read as a refutation of mountains of literature decrying the shortcomings—aesthetic, environmental, and psychological—of suburbia. Then again, Lepucki suggests that the suburbs may yet be the last, best place to survive the apocalypse. Even so, the ultimate cost of fleeing to suburbia in California, as in California, looms large.
So, do we understand and perhaps forgive Cal and Frida’s retreat to the gated suburbs because they’re in post-apocalyptic survival mode? Or are we all always in survival mode?
James Howard Kunstler, the author of a series of polemical nonfiction books decrying suburban sprawl and the ugliness of the American landscape, offers a contrast in his post-apocalyptic novel World Made by Hand, set on the other side of the continent. In it, Kunstler imagines an upstate New York town that turns into a near-utopia after the nation suffers an enormous but unexplained catastrophe similar to the one that undid California. It’s easy to imagine that the two stories take place simultaneously, with each part of the fractured country reinventing itself in different ways. Unlike Lepucki, Kunstler uses his apocalypse as a meditation on the lost pleasures of small-town life. He suggests that a reversion to old-fashioned ways is so desirable as to almost—almost—compensate for the loss of civil society.
California and World Made by Hand both offer impassioned thought experiments for urban planners, policy makers, and developers who design real cities and shape, to some extent, how they operate. Both novels take current and past planning rhetoric to hyperbolic, though ultimately logical extremes. There is something appealing and useful, especially for an urban planner, in imagining revolutions that reveal, and to some extent are caused by, the tragic flaws in our own urban planning and, particularly, in our enduring penchant for segregation of land uses, ethnicities, and socioeconomic groups.
Ironically, these books appear in the midst of what can only be called an urban renaissance. Planners have been crying out for means to promote diversity, density, and urban vitality for a half-generation. They’re finally making progress, with new general plans, new means of analyzing and controlling traffic, greater demand for urbane living, and, in California, landmark antisprawl laws such as 2008’s Senate Bill 375 and 2013’s Senate Bill 743. The critiques evoked by Lepucki and Kunstler have become orthodoxy, and in many ways we are moving beyond them on the ground.
The question is whether these science fictions are looking forward or backward.
Josh Stephens is contributing editor to the California Planning & Development Report and former editor of The Planning Report, independent newsletters covering land use in, respectively, California and Los Angeles County.
Photograph at top via Flickr by Doc Searls.