In Other Words Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins
Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins, Riverhead Books/Penguin Random House, 339 pages
Gold Fame Citrus, Claire Vaye Watkins’ first novel, unfolds in a drought-stricken, post-apocalyptic California landscape akin to that of Mad Max. Most people have evacuated to the East, and those who remain are called Mojavs, largely lawless “burners and gutterpunks” who survive on black-market provisions and rationed cola. Twenty-five-year-old Luz and her boyfriend Ray are among the holdouts. The couple squat in a Hollywood starlet’s crumbling Laurel Canyon mansion and fill their days with “projects,” which for Ray means building a half-pipe in the empty swimming pool and bartering for supplies, while Luz dreamily tries on the starlet’s designer dresses and reads biographies of John Muir, Lewis and Clark, and John Wesley Powell, mourning their visions of the once-viable West.
Luz is no ordinary Mojav — as Baby Dunn, born at the beginning of California’s end, she was “adopted and co-opted by Conservation and its enemies, her milestones announced in press releases” as a symbol of the drought’s progress: “LAST CENTRAL VALLEY FARM SUCCUMBS TO SALT: BABY DUNN, 18, NEVER AGAIN TO TASTE CALIFORNIA PRODUCE.” After her successful modeling career is cut short by the evacuation, Luz is set to while away the endless hours aimlessly basking in the fever dream of the mansion and Ray’s love, until the night they meet Ig, a strange white-blond toddler. They cannot remember the last time they saw a child, and almost instinctively, the baby’s presence creates a purpose, as they take her home and begin planning for a better future.
But the entire West is parched, with only pockets of warped life remaining, and leaving it proves more difficult than Luz and Ray anticipated. Watkins’ prose is both lush and cutting, carrying with it an essential warning about conservation. Indiana-born Ray, traumatized by his service in an unnamed war, serves as a voice of reason for Luz’s depressive temperament. Addressing the rest of the country’s impatience for Mojavs, he says, “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.” Watkins situates this landscape as the inevitable result of the California dream — including the arrogance of westward expansion and Hollywood royalty — which makes this shimmering, nightmarish vision of the future all the more haunting.
After a hallucinatory sequence in which Luz and Ig are left alone without gas or water in the searing desert while Ray goes to find help, Luz finds solace in the Amargosa Dune Sea, a vast, mobile expanse of sand that has obliterated most of the Southwest. She puts her lot in with an itinerant band of survivors led by Levi, a magnetic dowser and naturalist, and, like the emerging Amargosa species Levi charts (incandescent bat, Mojave ghost crab), she begins to evolve. The novel is at its best when delving deep into the psyche of survival, as Luz’s inner landscape reflects the turmoil of the world around her.
But the narrative can falter. When Watkins experiments with disruption and different perspectives, the effect can be jarring and not entirely functional. In passages that stray from Luz and Ray’s plight, momentum is lost. Though the novel’s language nearly always sparkles with weird, disturbing beauty, it’s hard to locate the stakes during these extended disruptions.
Still, this is an impressive debut, most strikingly so when it hints at the reasons behind the decline of the West, as well as toward a precarious hope in the midst of such a wracked future. Watkins’ tale is like an incantation of some spell that’s already come to pass, and she leaves it to the reader, through Luz, to find a way out of the chaos civilization has created. When Luz laments that scorpions are some of the only creatures that have survived the devastation, wishing for “fauna more charismatic,” Ray sets her straight. “It’s thinking like that that got us into this,” he says. — Molly Boyle