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'City of Orange' is a post-apocalyptic tale starting with memory loss

G.P. Putnam's Sons

The double threat of climate change and the global pandemic has made post-apocalyptic fiction an undeniably thriving and popular genre.

From Cormac McCarthy's The Road to Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven, not to mention countless others, authors aren't getting tired of imagining what happens after the end of the world as we know it — and it appears readers aren't tired of reading about it either.

For every new conjuring of our modern lives turned upside down by wildfires, floods, and drought, the relevant question is not whether the latest post-apocalyptic work is well-written, but whether the new entrant in the category is additive. In the case of City of Orange by award-winning sci-fi author David Yoon, the answer isn't straightforward.

The book's twist on the familiar post-apocalyptic setup is that the main character can't remember anything. Adam Cheung wakes to find himself in the middle of nowhere. He remembers only that he is on Earth. He doesn't remember his name, whether he has a family, what he used to do for a living, or perhaps most importantly, how the world ended, the details of which are kept murky throughout the novel, limited to incomplete explanations such as the following, from a character Adam meets:

"I mean, first there's the whole financial meltdown, then all the investors pull out, then a fire hits. The flames were scary huge. The river was the only thing that kept us from burning up with it, like a firebreak? . . . That was like six months ago . . ."

Adam is Tom Hanks in Castaway without Wilson the Volleyball, though there is a talking crow. Adam has to find water, boil it, and forage. Adam spends much of the book piecing together his past via flashbacks while figuring out how to survive. His backstory is a tragic one. Before the apocalypse, his wife and young child were killed in an auto accident, rear-ended during a traffic stop by a car leading the police on a high-speed chase. The flashbacks, intended to make Adam's pre-apocalyptic existence relatable to readers, start to feel like less than the sum of their parts as the book goes on. By the second half of the novel, we're not learning much new information about Adam's family, only that Adam is still mourning.

What he does and doesn't remember also seems somewhat arbitrary. Adam's internal monologues occasionally slip into '90s slang. Adam observes that a fellow survivor is "insane in the membrane," a phrase made popular by the 1993 Cypress Hill song of the same title. Later in the book, however, he struggles to remember the financial term "underwater" and initially thinks of the word's literal meaning.

Amidst the survivalist misery, City of Orange poses an interesting question about manmade climate catastrophes. At one point, Adam thinks:

"If Man is fundamentally evil, the evil is simply an inescapable part of nature. Man creates tools, discovers fires, leaps to the top of the food chain. Creates culture and science. Then sets about murdering himself in the pursuit of dominance . . . If Man is fundamentally evil, is this apocalypse really anything to mourn?"

The narrative, however, doesn't answer this question. Adam doesn't have anything to do with the apocalypse, and the apocalypse doesn't have anything to do with the loss of his family. The metaphysics of humanity's negligence of its responsibility for the planet's survival aren't addressed thematically or through the book's characters.

It's not until Adam encounters a teen named Clay that the novel begins to serve up some surprises. The boy lives in a solar-powered model home with video games and basic cable. Clay turns on the news to show Adam that the apocalypse he believes has occurred might not have occurred for everyone everywhere. When Clay's mother shows up in a van to take her son to her sister's house, it becomes clear that, for some, the world might be just fine.

Perhaps the most memorable scene happens near the end of the book when Adam meets a man in a sea kayak, fully equipped with "seventy-two thousand calories of durable rations in waterproof containers plus a water purifier below deck." The man intends to paddle from Orange County to Hawaii. City of Orange could have used more inspired, surreal exchanges like that one to transcend the post-apocalyptic genre tropes that this novel mostly rehashes, rather than reinvents.

Leland Cheuk is an award-winning author of three books of fiction, most recently No Good Very Bad Asian. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Salon, among other outlets.

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Leland Cheuk