Where We’ve Come from and Where We’ll End: A Review of Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins
I first met Claire Vaye Watkins shortly after her collection Battleborn came out, at a reading at Susquehanna University, smack in the middle of Central Pennsylvania—all that green, those rolling hills stretching out along the Susquehanna River for miles. A widely acclaimed collection, Battleborn touched on the extremeness of place and the harshness of the modern American West and the shadow of its history. With her debut novel, Gold Fame Citrus, Watkins returns to this landscape, delving even deeper into the American dream, the West, and the drive for more, for fame. Just as westward expansion drew early 19th century settlers across the land, the reader comes to understand that one can only push so far until death inevitably comes knocking. This novel journeys into the American past, its future, and the stark mysticism surrounding it all, making Gold Fame Citrus tense and truly haunting.
The novel opens in a near future when California and the West are completely overcome by drought, and those states have evacuated to the East. There’s no water anywhere, just rationed cola and dried-up hangers on. Luz Dunn, a former child model and the poster child of water conservation, is living in LA in an abandoned starlet’s mansion with her partner Ray, a nice guy, an ex-soldier gone AWOL. We don’t know the details surrounding the catastrophic drought Watkins describes as “a drought of droughts, wind of winds.”
Watkins uses landscape to complicate her characters. When Luz and Ray find a two-year-old girl at a rave, realizing she is orphaned and has been left in the care of threatening men, they take her and set off on a journey to find civilization in the east, somewhere the brutal sands of the Armargosa haven’t spread to yet. In Gold Fame Citrus, the Armargosa is “a disease: a cancer, a malignancy, a tumor. A steamroller, a plow. A hungry beast, a self-spawning corpulence, a bloated blob gobbling land, various images of appetite, projections of our ugly, innermost selves.” The reader begins to wonder how this “devil incarnate,” this “wide, open eye of God” will manifest itself in Luz, Ray, the girl, and on their journey.
When their sports car runs out of gas in the middle of a sea of sand, they are left with nothing more than a few rationed colas, bartered blueberries, and books containing the ghosts of John Muir, Sacagawea, and John Wesley Powell. Ray goes off to find help, but Luz and the little girl, Ig, are essentially left to die. Luz awakens in a desert utopia—a small community of ramblers, intellectuals, healers, and a famous dowser who has visions of a way out of all this sand, this place the rest of the world has given up on. This utopia surrounded by sand, is a place “[w]e’re told . . . is a wasteland because they need it to be a wasteland.”
Through Luz’s eyes the desert becomes alive, a place “made of unseen wonders, which we might call miracles”; “suddenly this was a land of could.” Watkins includes in-text guides to this utopia where new extreme creatures thrive: The Ouroboros Rattler that sticks its tail into its mouth and “locomotes via axial revolution” and the Dumbo Jackrabbit, whose ears are four to five times the size of its body and act as a cooling unit in the frying heat. Or the Stiltwalker Tortoise, with stilted legs and a long neck that grow ten times longer than that of the desert tortoise, as a way of escaping the heat from the sand on its underbelly. In this magical, harsh landscape, Luz and Ig, surrounded by the evidence of the ways we can adapt, learn how to survive on the Armargosa’s terms.
Gold Fame Citrus tells the story we’ve been telling and re-telling since The Odyssey, the journey home, but Watkins weaves in other methods of storytelling, updating the classic for contemporary readers. She includes chapters full of drawings of newly evolved creatures, as well as sections from Ray’s back-pocket notebook, and his everyday lists: “Matches, crackers, L, water.” She breaks from traditional close third or omniscient narration, giving us sections of dialogue from members of the utopia’s eclectic group. In one scene, Dallas, an older woman, and “The Girls” discuss the way Luz and Ig affect the community:
Dallas: Things were changing, or were just about to, and everyone could feel that . . .
The Girls: It hurt to witness, honestly.
Watkins uses these sections as a way to connect with the reader directly, bypassing Luz’s all encompassing point-of-view to show what every character has at stake. As the novel comes to a close, each character—Luz, Ray, and little Ig—reach their seemingly predestinated fates in this dry, savage landscape.
Gold Fame Citrus is a stunning debut novel. Dowsed with apocalyptic droughts and biblical floods, this novel had me on the edge of my seat, flipping pages, and wanting more. Awash with metaphors and mirages, it is impossible not to feel as if you’re on this journey with Ig, Luz, Ray, and the cast of characters they meet. Here and in Battleborn, Claire Vaye Watkins shows us who we are, where we’ve come from, and where we will inevitably end.