Art History in “California” by Edan LePucki

This review contains spoilers and links to scenes of unsettling imagery.

In a novel about California’s post-apocalyptic decline into wilderness and oppressive, exclusive burgs, the main characters Frida and Cal react to Micah, a leader of one of these communities. Micah, a brother to Frida and a college friend to Cal, establishes his character early on with an art history reference. What was the reference? The Gerhard Richter series of the Baader-Meinhof group. Praising the work that is an art history teaching staple of post World War Two era German art, the book sets the stage for Micah’s character. Frida even names, with disdain, Gerhard Richter. In fact, the education Cal and Micah received and their discussions of Roland Barthes and Richter reminded me of the college courses I took. When I learned about Gerhard Richter and his paintings, it was in the context of learning about Germany reconstructing itself out of World War Two’s aftermath. Micah himself is an extremist (whose own group took inspiration from the German gang) who creates a society after California falls apart. The book implies that his group helped exacerbate California’s descent as the state infrastructure fails and class warfare creates a wider chasm between rich and poor.

When Cal and Frida enter Micah’s community, they are greeted by an intimidating fortification. A fortification that makes allusions to the California sculpture, Watts Towers. Micah was a frequent visitor of the monument, according to the couple.

Carol Highsmith [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Other reviews note the comparisons between the fortification and the Towers with their own interpretations. Having learned about Micah’s community, I find his little town quite a perversion of the history and ideals behind the sculpture.

As the novel progresses and Micah’s town reveals its ugly past and restrictive future, Cal and Frida find other towns to take part in, such as Pines. Pines offers a pleasant atmosphere that is a contrast to Micah’s rather work driven culture. Frida even reads Pines’ propaganda that offers nice pleasant sounding houses that are listed in a row. Having looked up these homes, they were a definitely the visual opposite to Frida and Cal’s descriptions of Micah’s repurposed village.

I found the book’s themes fascinating. Using architecture and art, LePucki reveals that the California towns, such as Micah’s town or Pines, they all live on illusions, lies, and extremist ideas. Micah’s leadership and town (that he took over) is built on underhanded dealings later revealed to Frida and Cal. However, the Pines town is no better with their different set of rules.

While I enjoyed the novel and its character studies, the ending was kind of a let down. LePucki reveals near the end of the novel that Micah is going back to his old terrorist ways to scare Pines. I thought this obvious bit of foreshadowing would expand into some big finale in the novel, but nothing comes of it. The book ends with Frida and Cal living in Pines. I also thought it could be a set up for a sequel, and other people have speculated on that too.

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