California review – Edan Lepucki's hit story of marriage after the apocalypse

This bestselling debut, with shades of 1984 and The Road, thrusts an ordinary American couple into a frightening future

In a foreword he added to the second edition of Brave New World, Aldous Huxley wrote: "Whatever its artistic or philosophical qualities, a book about the future can interest us only if its prophecies look as though they might conceivably come true." Edan Lepucki sets her debut novel, California, somewhere in the 2060s. The nearness of this era helps make her vision both more discomfiting and more credible. All the artefacts are familiar, as is the tortured landscape, but none of the known systems are in place – no government to speak of, no infrastructure, no CNN, no internet, no universities. We are mid-apocalypse, as if Lepucki is supplying the missing years between now and, say, the desolation of Cormac McCarthy's The Road. Such fears are in the ether, and California strikes a nerve.

Lepucki uses this backdrop to explore how a typical marriage might survive a society that has turned into rather a dog-eat-dog affair. The wealthy have formed their own corporate-sponsored Communities, whereas others are living in primitive outposts, fearing bands of Pirates. Young marrieds Cal and Frida live lost in the middle of these unmapped territories. Having escaped a gutted Los Angeles, they spend their initial months in the California wilderness in relative contentment, eating beets and cauliflower and drinking "jugs of water with lemon balm". Pregnancy soon follows a lot of listless lovemaking, and Frida is consumed with a biological instinct to find a Community. She wants, quite simply, friends. She persuades Cal to leave their outpost in search of other people. The couple discovers the Land – a ragtag group of about 60 souls, "a population" that has been living collaboratively through survivalist methods. In an engaging narrative twist, the head of the Land turns out to be someone previously close to both of them.

Frida is in thrall to both the Land and to its people, while at first Cal skulks behind her, the recalcitrant cowboy, carefully guarding his sensual wife. He is unreasonably antagonistic toward his hosts, but we believe in his jealous love. As one character puts it to Frida, Armageddon is "Cal's dream come true … The two of you, the end of the world." But when Cal gets invited into the Land's inner circle, attending the "morning meetings" at the leader's side, power changes him. Both characters make moral compromises that would have been unthinkable previously. At times these gestures seem founded in their allegorical fall; at other times they are jarring narrative disconnections. Cal and Frida begin to fear they will be kicked out of the Land once their secret pregnancy is revealed. And why shouldn't they be scared? There are no children on the Land, though several of the women have given birth.

Whereas the first half of California supplies evocative scenes and sentences, such as a haunting moment of confrontation with a starving coyote, attention to the visceral quality of life in this particular future diminishes as the book becomes concerned with ins and outs of a wider conspiracy and authorially dangled secrets. Flashes of genuine narrative tension that pull the reader forward by the shirtfront are interrupted by moments of retrospection or unhurried conversation that seem unlikely or disappointingly timed. Still, a strong whiff of Nineteen Eighty-Four in the final section lends the novel a powerful and creepy finish.

One of the sheltered Communities in California is named after its corporate sponsor, Amazon. How fitting that Lepucki's book has become an anti-Amazon rallying cry, thanks to Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert. Colbert is (like me) a Hachette author and, angered by the hostile tactics of Amazon toward Hachette authors during a protracted renegotiating of ebook contracts, told his legions of fans to go out and buy a Hachette book from an independent bookseller instead, rocketing California on to the New York Times bestseller list. Though Lepucki's book might not merit this special treatment in a literary sense, Colbert still chose the perfect book. Lepucki has given expression to a generational anxiety about the near future, one rooted in the threat of environmental crisis and the loss of meaningful cultural institutions (including the printed book). She places two appropriately ordinary Americans in this gothic scene; they are familiar to us, while the context estranges. It's a vertiginous feeling. The experience of reading California brings validation to anyone who sits upright in the middle of the night struck with the instability of the human project on this planet: others are awake, too. And a lot of us are reading California.

• Amity Gaige's Schroder is published by Faber. To order California for £11.99 with free UK p&p call Guardian book service on 0330 333 6846 or go to


Amity Gaige

The GuardianTramp

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