As promised from Friday’s post, here’s my review of Claire Vaye Watkins’s Gold Fame Citrus.
Nature had refused to offer herself to them. The water, the green, the mammalian, the tropical, the semitropical, the leafy, the verdant, the motherloving citrus, all of it was denied them and had been denied them so long that with each day, each project, it became more and more impossible to conceive of a time when it had not been denied them. The prospect of Mother Nature opening her legs and inviting Los Angeles back into her ripeness was, like the disks of water shimmering in the last foothill reservoirs patrolled by the National Guard, evaporating daily.
The debut novel from Watkins (whose first book of short stories, Battleborn, won her heaps of praise) opens in a California without water. Most of the residents (known as “Mojavs”) have left or been evacuated, and the few patches of people that stayed behind live a post-apocalyptic existence, scrounging food, surviving on ration cola, and suffering through long, somewhat purposeless days. This is the setting we meet Luz (once known as “Baby Dunn,” the child born in the year of the drought and marked by propaganda as she aged: “Governor Signs HSB 4579: Every Swimming Pool in California to be Drained Before Baby Dunn is Old Enough to Take Swimming Lessons” one headline read, and another, “Berkeley Hydrologists: Without Evacs Baby Dunn Will Die of Thirst by 24”) and her boyfriend Ray, living in the abandoned house of a young starlet.
Threatening them from afar is the Amargosa Dune Sea, a massive swath of ever-moving sand that accumulated between Southern California and Las Vegas.
Luz said, “What is that?” just as the answer came to her.
Ray said it. “The dune sea. The Amargosa.”
“It’s that close?” They were barely beyond the city.
Ray shook his head. “It’s that big.”
This knocked Luz off balance. The dune was not atop the empurpled range before them but beyond it, beyond it by miles and miles. The white was not a rind of ice, not a snowcap, but sand piling up inland where the Mohave had been.
Resigned to stay in Los Angeles with the other bands of misfits and holdouts, Luz and Ray spend their days working on “projects” to keep busy. Ray: food and drink to keep them both alive, Luz: trying on each of the dresses in the starlet’s closet. It isn’t until they take in (steal?) a neglected two-year old bobble-headed girl they call Ig (described as “touched”) from a group of derelicts that they decide it’s time to head toward the promise of green land, flowing water, and fruit in the east rather than stay in barren, sweltering Los Angeles. First, they rule out traveling north: “Let’s go to Seattle,” she said. Ray frowned drowsily. “There’s militia at the Oregon border. You know that.” Washington State had stopped accepting Mojav relocation applications. It is on this journey eastward they encounter the dune sea, and the strange community of people who have made it their home.
If Watkins doesn’t floor you with her words, she’ll impress you with how far she’s willing to push the boundaries of the novel, interspersing direct storytelling with short stories: a short chapter written as notes from a psychiatric ward, a section involving a businessman on a plane staring down at the broken Los Angeles, a chapter set in a gambling community near Yucca Mountain, sections told a la Ben Greenman’s short story What 100 People, Real and Fake, Believe About Dolores. These breaks from direct story action offer us a respite from the apocalypse novel, which can be stressful at times for a reader of literary fiction who is not a regular reader of the apocalypse novel (especially a reader who is legitimately terrified that this sort of thing is not too far out of the realm of possibility).
But beyond the story of climate change’s disastrous effects, the story seems to be a poignant poke at Los Angeles in general, and notably that of the variable, irresponsible culture of the super rich. “Your people came here looking for something better. Gold, fame, citrus. Mirage. They were feckless, yeah? Schemers. That’s why no one wants them now. Mojavs.” Says Ray, upon first meeting Luz. This is even more pronounced in the final pages of the novel:
What she felt, beyond the painful range of Ig, was the astonishing relief of quitting. Taking her rightful position in that long line of runners and flakers. […] Antsy pioneers, con artists and sooners, dowsers and gurus, Petnecosts and Scientologists. Muscle heads, pill-poppers, pep talkers, drama queens and commuters. […] Drained lakes, sulfur seas, yucca forests pines dried to paper, redwoods blighted and departed, sequoias and pinyon pines tinder for a never-satisfied wildfire. These were her people. Speculators and opportunities, carnival barkers and realtors, imaginers, cowards of dreamers and girls. Mojavs. Eyes peeled for the flash of ore, the flash of the camera, the wet flesh of fruit. Gold, fame, citrus. […] Hold it icy against your injuries, Cut it with sugar, with liquor, with pesticide, blast for gold or gas with it, grow creatures with it. Ride it, spray it into the street, swim it, soak in it, drink it in, piss it away.
Watkins has created a novel that gave me chills, both for its beauty and its frightening accuracy into what may become of a world we no longer care to fix. Read it, think on it, and read it again.