Thursday, September 17, 2015

California Nightmares

Since I, and a couple friends, started a writer's group a few years ago, I've noticed a peculiar shift in the way I read. I still pick up books for pleasure, but now I'm more likely to notice all the hinky details and typos, all the tone-deaf tropes, all the thudding dialogue. In short, I am reading more like an editor than a reader, which can kind of ruin the kick-back-with-a-book experience.

Last week, I picked up Edan Lepucki's debut novel California, a dystopian read set in the Golden State after a series of catastrophes, both economic and environmental, kill off millions of Americans. Cal and Frida are a young couple who survive the breakdown by fleeing the rapidly disintegrating city of Los Angeles—with its gated communities, its downtown overtaken by radicals, and its suicide bombers (including Frida's brother Micah)—for the relative safety of woodsy isolation. The two of them are now foragers, hunters, shed-dwellers. Their neighbours are a tiny family of hippies, and they have the most humourless dinner parties in the history of mankind. When the neighbours kill themselves, and Frida starts to think she's pregnant, the two of them strike out for a nearby encampment, one that has been surrounded by spikes and where pirates—strike that, Pirates—have been spotted. Will they be welcomed by the spiky community, or eaten? Is Frida's baby real, or are her symptoms the result of malnutrition? And who is that mysterious bearded man leading the Spikers?

When I read the back of the book, I was like, "Hmm, this has potential." I love apocalypse narratives. They're like puzzles to me. People behave crazily in the best of times, so when you take away their running water, their penicillin, and their easy access to fast food, what happens? I like reading about the interpersonal and interiour dynamics when people really begin to believe that this might be their last night on earth. I love the ripple effect of removing one or two essentials from people's lives (our cushy, late-stage lives) and trying to figure exactly where the waves would come ashore. If we shut down, say, Manhattan's transit system...what would happen? Would taxi drivers become fief lords? If Calgary decided to keep all the oil to itself, would they build a wall? And who would build it? And would they be proud of their good work?

And, it should be noted, I've been obsessed with this idea in my own writing. The last couple years, my poor writer's group buds have been subjected to multiple takes on the end of the world—snowstorms, nuclear strikes, economic collapse, and other, more amorphous sputters—and my attempts to play those out on the human scale. What happens when an introvert needs to join up with a group in order to survive? Where, exactly, does baby food come from after the world ends?

Even when I think I'm sitting down to write a little story about, like, young lovers going skinny dipping, I can't keep the tidal wave out of the background. Some attempts have been more successful than others.

Apocalypse stories work best when they balance the personal with the global. I want to know the scale of the disaster—is it just one or two towns? Or did the entire Pacific Northwest region just fall into the sea?—but I also want to know about the people who're experiencing this. Are they shy, or strident? Do they have kids, or are they still kids themselves? Did they already have guns before shit went down? Do they think Obama is a Kenyan, or Jack Layton was a saint? Do they know how to garden? Knit? Dress a knife wound? Would they hold that information back in order to grab onto some power, or would they share it freely? Do they mourn their dead family and friends? Do they remember the world before it all went to shit? Those questions form the lynchpins to writing interesting apocalypse stories, even if I don't always nail the answers.

So: I had two main issues with California, one cosmetic, one editorial.

The cosmetic problem was one of capitalization. We've had multiple discussions at the writer's group about writers capitalizing certain words to denote significance (turning groups into Groups, land into Land, etc), and the general consensus we've come to is that this is lazy writing. While people do think in landmarks—my convenience store, my Ikea, my grandmother's grave—these tend to be personal landmarks. In the book, these personal landmarks are replaced with monoliths. For example, the bathhouse where people go to get clean is universally referred to as the Bath, but in real life, Susan might call it the bath; Gary might call the place the bathhouse; Daniel might refer to it as the soap shack; and so on. Annoyingly, newly arrived Cal and Frida pick up on this nomenclature almost immediately, despite not being assimilated into the group.

I understand why Lepucki did this (hint: it is easy), but that doesn't mean I like it. Hell, even places in Toronto with actual proper names still get a whole bunch of different titles—I mean, I can barely remember that it's not still the Skydome, and it's been the Rogers Centre for a full ten years now. Names are powerful, and they're one way to actively create and enforce conformity.

The editorial issue I have with California runs a little deeper. These characters are paper dolls. Frida is fleshed out a little more—we know she's a baker who used to like getting stoned—but most of these people are just empty teeshirts. Forget individual characterization; I had a hard time telling anyone not in the main cast apart. Lepucki seems to have taken "show, don't tell," to heart, but then she sort of forgot to do any showing, either. There are moments that I didn't buy in the least, because real people don't behave like these characters do...but characters created solely to serve the plot might.

One of the most annoying things as a writer is when you have this awesome idea for a story, and then people you create to make it happen just don't want to do it. Your story is the minivan, and your characters are the recalcitrant toddlers you're trying to stuff, screaming, into the backseat so you can just get to where you're going. But I can promise you right now that if you, as a creator, populate your writing with characters who are just cogs in the story wheel, they'll come across as stiff, boring, and hard to tell apart. I want backstory, I want details about appearance (exactly how did Astrid lose that tooth?), I want the author to not be afraid of adjectives. I want characters to do things, and for those things to mean something. Lepucki's characters didn't do a lot, and it ultimately didn't mean much when they did. Genuinely disturbing reveals were met with muted or nonexistent reactions, and the plot machine just kept chugging along to Grandma's house.

I genuinely can't tell if this is deliberate on Lepucki's part—after all, in a dytopian world, it's totally possible that people would be flat and kind of soulless—but even characters that were probably designed to be magnetic and charismatic fall flat. The cultish Micah is, by turns, petulant, standoffish, and needy, and it's hard to imagine exactly why anyone follows him. It took me far too many pages to realize that the Land actually hosted two factions (the original settlers and Micah's group), because everyone seemed uniformly capable and uniformly committed to the cause. And that cause, and the steps the Group had taken to support it, revealed slowly over the novel's last third, was probably supposed to be shocking, but would obvious to even a careless reader. Those literal red flag were planted all over the book. The questions about how different personalities might respond to a disaster never get asked, because there aren't enough variations in characters for that to really matter. It's just chug-chug-chug to the finish line.

I felt, at times, like this was a very promising first draft. I was itching to take a red pencil to it, scribble in the margins "Why?" and "How?" and "Tell me what effect this has!" These are the questions we've been asking ourselves at writer's group, and answering them really does make for a stronger story. I don't want to know how—I want to know why. In apocalypse stories, this can be interpreted as "Why did this happen?" but that's not always the right thing to ask. It should be "Why does this matter?" and, that old perennial question readers ask, "Why should I care?"

Image via Joseph Morgan via Future Organization