In Other Words Gold Fame Cit­rus by Claire Vaye Watkins

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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

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