By David Nilsen
Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins is a feverish parable about an American near-future without water. Not long from now the American West, a largely arid region without nearly enough water to slake its citizens and their pools, lawns, and agriculture, has dried up completely. The land is desolate, the towns nearly deserted, the country pocked with sinkholes and dry riverbeds. A single shriveled fruit can bring hundreds of dollars on the black market. A massive sand dune–The Amargosa Dune Sea–has emerged, grown, and engulfed much of the western landscape and its towns and cities, moving each day in its insatiable and mythically sentient rebuke of American shortsightedness. The Dune has a mystical energy, confounding scientific study and calling a certain type of desert seeker with the thrumming of its spiritual energy. A settlement exists at the advancing foot of the Dune, a small collection of outcasts led by a charismatic prophet leader name Levi.
The novel’s protagonists are Luz, a former mid-level model, and Ray, a military veteran who doesn’t seem suited to such work until details of his past come into the light well into the book. At the book’s beginning, Luz and Ray are squatting in the abandoned mansion of a former starlet in the Hollywood hills. They make periodic trips to Venice Beach where those who haven’t already been evacuated East gather to dance for rain, drink bastardized alcohol, and trade goods. On one such excursion, Ray and Luz rescue–or kidnap–a toddler they believe is being neglected and abused by her careless caretakers. They realize they can’t stay in this hostile environment any longer, and decide to head East with the child. Their car runs out of gas in the middle of the desert, an eventuality that seems hopelessly inevitable (“They went on, the journey a stillborn they had to birth” – page 97), and it is here they enter the orbit of Levi and his tribe of followers. At first, the settlement seems utopian, but of course, not all is as it seems.
Luz was once a minor political celebrity before she could even walk. When she was born she was adopted (co-opted) by the Bureau of Conservation to serve as the poster child for the government’s pipe dream promises of a greener future for the West in the face of increasing droughts. When the West became unlivable, everyone mostly forgot about her. Now that she has a child of her own–when they arrive at the settlement she identifies herself and Ray as the parents–she finds history repeating itself: Levi wants to use her baby in their propaganda messages to the eastern populace. People will remember Luz, and if they see her and her baby happily living in the desert, it might bring people back to the West to live more sustainably, as Levi explains to her here:
“We position our removal not as in injustice–we’ve failed on that appeal, again and again, The Sierra Club, Save the Mojave, Mojav Rights Org–all peddling injustice porn. Injustice is mundane. No one gives a good goddamn about injustice.
We need to offer atonement. Deliver them unambiguous righteousness. We change the scenario, get them off the guilt circuit. We can’t drink their guilt. We can’t bathe in it. We say, “It’s okay that you fucked half the country, killed rivers, depleted millenia of aquifer, fed arsenic to children and lied about it, forced citizens once again into internment camps, let people die in holding pens. It’s okay. It’s actually good–because look! You created this magical ecosystem. The way the Ukrainians call Chernobyl a national park. You meant to do that, right, America? Well done! Bravo!” – page 228
Over time Levi’s megalomania and manipulation become increasingly more apparent and the tension between Levi and his adherents on one side and Luz and Ray on the other, with the child stuck in the middle, crescendos into a difficult but believable conclusion.
Gold Fame Citrus posits a believable near-future disaster, one that doesn’t require us to accept a killer virus or worldwide societal collapse, but merely asks us to look ahead to the logical conclusions of our unrealistic expectations for the land we live on, particularly in the western half of the country. The novel features just the right dosage of mystical elements, with portions delving into magical realism, and these imbue the novel with the atmospheric surrealism of the southwestern desert. My only complaints with the novel lie in its pacing and the balance of tension. Parts of the story rush along without giving much attention to seemingly important developments, while others linger and explore elements that bog the story down a bit. I felt like something was missing in the book’s evocation of reaction–I didn’t always care when I felt like I should have, which could certainly have been my own failing. Still, something in the emotional construction of some of these characters and scenes felt off, but not so much that empathy could not be patched in. Watkins paints some beautiful word images–“That winter wanted to snow but was unable, lacked the moisture, and gusted its frustrations.” (page 151)–and her ability to summon the mystical whisperings of the lonely desert into her prose, making us understand why such a forbidding landscape would hold call and appeal to a person, is remarkable. Gold Fame Citrus is not a perfect book, but it is well worth the read.
Gold Fame Citrus is available now at GPL.