The dystopian future portrayed in Claire Vaye Watkins’ Gold Fame Citrus is not that far off. Water shortages are increasingly common and great political fights are being waged over water. Gold Fame Citrus is a speculative novel of what happens when it is all too late. When the water is gone and the southwest is succumbing to the desert – or in this case, the Amargosa Dune Sea, what will happen to the people?
Of course, most of the people will evacuate and be taken here or there and struggle on, but there are always those who stay behind, the stragglers, the misfits, the outsiders. In Watkins’ novel we have Luz Dunn, the “Smokey the Bear” of water conservation, adopted by the Bureau of Conservation as Smokey was by the Forest Service. She lives with Ray, an AWOL medic who would surely be arrested if he left this new SouthWest of the left behind. They hang out in an abandoned mansion on Mulholland, subsisting on ration cola and what they can scrounge.
One day, a toddler approaches them, enchanting them with her open-hearted affection. When they see her with her people being neglected and casually mistreated in a way that suggests future abuse and misery, they kidnap her. This rash act forces them to leave LA and head into the desert where the ever expanding Amargosa Dune Sea is inexorably grinding all that remains to dust like a silica glacier.
This leads them to a group of Mojavs who are making it work in the desert. They have fresh food, solar power and water. The community centers on the charismatic Levi, who obviously has the name of the biblical prophet, the diviner, or in this case, the dowser. Levi was the father of the House of Levi, the one tribe of Israelites who were not allotted land, like these Mojavs, his tribe who perches constantly on the edge of the ever advancing Dune Sea, a perpetual motion machine rippling across the desert.
I liked many things Gold Fame Citrus. The people are intriguing and fresh. They are the sort of anti-heroes who usually save themselves in extremis by finding some previously unknown hidden strength and nobility. That doesn’t happen and that is what makes this book unique. Watkins does not think we are ennobled by challenge. If we are the passive sort who drift until circumstances make our decisions before catastrophe, we will continue to act by inaction and decide by indecision. If we retreat and withdraw from challenges before, we will still desert and run after. We don’t change. We still seek gold, fame, and citrus.
I very much like the power of place. How the story was advanced by the land as much as by the people, how the people conformed to the land, not the other way around. The descriptions of the Dune Sea are stunning and I can see it in my mind, as though it really exists.
I love her prose, frequently creative and fresh, often poetic and musical. I love the interstices, a form completed by friends and family to assess employees’ reliability for top secret work, a study on the new species of the dune sea, a psychiatric patient’s case interview report. They advance the story in innovative ways and add clues to what is coming.
Then there is the first chapter of Book Two. It is perfection. Consider the first paragraph:
From space it seems a canyon. Unhealed yet scar-tissue white, a wound yawning latitudinal between the sluice grafts of Los Angeles and the flaking, friable, half-buried hull of Las Vegas. A sutureless gash where the Mojave Desert used to be. In the pixel promises of satellites it could be the Grand Canyon, its awesome chasms and spires, its photogenic strata, our great empty, where so many of us once stood feeling so compressed against all that vastness, so dense, wondering if there wasn’t a way to breathe some room between the bits of us, where we once stood feeling the expected smallness a little, but also a headache where our eyeballs scraped against the limits of our vision, or rather of our imagination, because it was a painting we were seeing though we stood at the sanctioned rim of the real deal. Instead we saw a photograph, blue mist hanging in the foreground, snow collars around the thick rusty trestles. Motel art, and it made us wonder finally how we could have been so cavalier with photography, how we managed a scoff when warned that the cloaked box would swallow a part of the soul. Although in this instance the trouble was not, strictly speaking, the filching of the subject’s soul, for while our souls are meager, nature has surplus. Yet something of the mechanism’s subject was indeed dissolved in that silver chloride, flattened then minted as those promiscuous postcards we saw now, which we could not now unsee, for we had accepted unawares a bit of the Canyon each time we saw a photograph of it, and those pieces, filtered and diluted, had accumulated in us, so that we never saw anything for the first time. Perhaps the ugliest of our impulses, to shove the sublime through a pinhole.
There are a few things that don’t make me happy. For such a fresh and exciting concept, it does seem kind of banal to go the whole love triangle route. I also sometimes got bored when Watkins’ waxed a bit too rhapsodic for too long. For example, when Luz is considering accepting Levi’s invitation to his bed, she considers what would happen “if she went.” There are so many things to consider and if there had been a dozen or so, that would have been effective. But it went on for the entire chapter. Twenty-eight in all. Yes, I counted because I was impatient and irritated by it. I felt myself skimming to get past it, enough already, move on. This is not the only time Watkins traps herself and the reader in a long, long, long indulgence in show-off writing. And of course, the writing is magnificent, but it still feels like showing off.
In the end, despite the beautiful prose, intriguing characters, implacable sense of place, and creative freshness, I could only rate this three stars. But remember, 3 stars is good, not average, good. Normally with a book written with such original prose, I would go higher. I thought the love triangle was too stale a plot device for such an inventive book. More importantly, though. It is a good thing to write beautifully. To be fresh, creative and original. But when it feels like you’re showing off how well you can write, as though the writing is a display rather than story-telling, well, just stop. We don’t read to be dazzled by your technique. We read because we love stories.