Luz and Ray, the protagonists of Claire Vaye Watkins’s excellent new novel, Gold Fame Citrus, are a pair of feckless young lovers: she a former model of middling celebrity, he an army deserter, both damaged in their own ways by dark personal hinterlands that each conceals from the other. At first glance, they would appear to be textbook drop-outs, squatting in the vacant mansion of a vanished Hollywood starlet — except it’s not they but the whole world that’s in freefall, and it’s not just the starlet but Hollywood itself, California as we know it in fact, which has disappeared. Because the United States in whichGold Fame Citrus is set, a United States of the none too distant (perhaps terrifyingly near) future, is gripped by the effects of a cataclysmic drought which has left the South West desiccated and barren and has given birth to the Amorgosa, a colossal dune sea, an expanding desert that consumes all that lies in its path. The dead zone west of the Amorgosa ispeopled only by millenarian misfits and fatalistic outsiders who, for whatever reason, have resisted evacuation and refused to become part of the mass of environmental migrants, disparagingly branded ‘Mojavs’ by their grudging host
communities in the shrinking and over-populated yet still fertile crescent of the Eastern seaboard.
In the midst of this, Luz and Ray seem content to see out the end days in a kind of
hazy, heatstruck simulacrum of newlywedded domestic bliss. That is until a mysterious foundling, Ig, irrupts into their life, upending it utterly. The arrival of Ig sets in motion a chain of events that leads them to a quasi-mythical commune on the edge of the Amorgosa, presided over by Levi, a charismatic and cultic dowser with the seemingly supernatural power to find water even within the mountainous white dunes of the desert.
This kind of post-apocalyptic vision has, of course, been a staple of speculative
fiction since Nevil Shute’s On the Beach (1957), if not earlier, and shows no sign of
going out of fashion any time soon; indeed, the potential imminence of a very
non-fictional environmental catastrophe of precisely the kind described in Gold Fame Citrus has added a fresh intensity and urgency to the sub-genre. But there are two striking qualities that distinguish Gold Fame Citrus from any number of other similar novels. The first is Watkins’s considerable powers as a prose stylist: she is a wonderful writer, by turns lyrical and gritty, who manages to describe a world that is vividly realised and richly detailed yet somehow retains the shimmering, ambiguous quality of a mirage or an ecstatic vision. Her characters are flawed, compromised, at times infuriating, at others inscrutable — real in other words — and they are drawn with a sensitivity and empathy that gives the novel a devastating emotional weight. The only false note is an overlong passage describing the lurid, sensationalist television output of this near-future, yet even this section is narratively justified in this tightly plotted novel.
Gold Fame Citrus’ other great strength is the acute sense of history Watkins
brings to bear on her dark vision of the future. Ray and Luz’s journey into the Amorogsa is depicted not simply as a personal odyssey, but as one strand of a profounder world historical reverse. From Columbus to the Mayflower, Manifest Destiny to Kerouac, right up to Obama’s ‘Pacific Century’, the lure of the west, of westward expansion, has been part of the American cultural and historical DNA, inextricably connected to concepts of US exceptionalism and humanity’s conquest of nature. In Gold Fame Citrus, generations of westward migration aren’t just literally being turned back by the Californian exodus, the whole edifice of man’s relation to nature is being irreversibly undermined, with traumatic implications not just for the American collective psyche but for the entire human race. This weight of history haunts the novel at every turn, symbolised by Luz’s yellowing biographies of men such as John Muir, John Wesley Powell, Francis Newlands, William Mulholland, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, objects which reappear throughout the story as emblems of a forgotten past sitting in silent judgment of
a cursed future.
This is a startling, gripping debut that more than lives up to the promise Watkins showed in her much praised collection of short stories, Battleborn (2013), and establishes her as a bold and original new voice in American fiction.