Review: A fascinating meditation on post-apocalyptic California and one man’s search for answers
For those paying attention to emerging talent, the arrival of David Yoon was nothing short of explosive. His 2019 debut album, “Frankly in Love,” is already among the best young adult novels of all time. Her first adult novel, “Version Zero,” was one of the most anticipated crime novels of 2021. Her second, “City of Orange,” is a story of survival in post-apocalyptic California.
Like all his work to date, “City of Orange” is a very intimate self-portrait with a protagonist who reflects the author’s own life: a native Californian, an American of Korean descent, a deeply rational and creative soul. rooted in his family and friends. In previous works, Yoon has touched on his father’s death from cancer, his teenage years in Southern California, and his experience as a tech in Silicon Valley — finding the humor, passion, and pain of his past. “City of Orange” breaks with this pattern and dives right into the heart of Yoon’s worst fears for the future – literally the end of everything he loves most.
The resulting novel is a powerful meditation on destruction, loss and healing. Waking up broken in a ruined world, the hero rises from the sand to seek the necessities of life: water, food, shelter, tools. His path to survival is littered with jagged shards of memory that trigger whenever he comes across a random fragment of the lost world. Sometimes he grabs those memories eagerly, but other times he cowers in agony and fear. Even in the grip of his traumatic brain injury, he is driven to answer two all-consuming questions: how did the world end? And is it possible that somewhere, somehow, his wife and child are still alive?
For a novel about the end of the world, there’s a surprisingly large cast of likable characters. In the past, there are rich memories of a best friend, a wife, a little girl. In the present, our hero’s companions are inhabitants of the Wasteland: crows and corpses, aphasic lunatics and abandoned children – all symbolic fragments of his shattered consciousness, past and present, from a lonely childhood to a lonely grave.
Above all, “City of Orange” is a beautiful novel about Southern California. The prose is fast and bright, the dialogue is spot-on, and the flashback descriptions of modern Los Angeles are beautifully written. Prominent scenes refer to Dockweiler Beach in Playa del Rey and the nearby El Segundo Blue Butterfly Sanctuary – and, of course, the star of the novel is a flood control culvert, structures that have become iconic in California from the South in countless movies and TV shows since 1938.
In the end, very few postapocalyptic novels have the literary qualities of this one. “City of Orange” falls into a very narrow category, alongside Emily St. John’s “Station Eleven”, Richard Matheson’s “I Am Legend” and Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road”. Like all the best writers in the genre, David Yoon is willing to ask what “the end of the world” really means – and provide the reader with a thoughtful and heartfelt answer.
City of Orange
By David Yoon
(The Sons of GP Putnam; 352 pages; $27)
Green Apple Books on the Park features David Yoon in conversation with Tom Lin: In person and virtual. 7 p.m. June 1. Free. Masks and proof of vaccination required for in-person visits; registration required for virtual. 1231 Ninth Avenue, SF www.greenapplebooks.com