CUTBANK REVIEWS: "Gold, Fame, Citrus" by Claire Vaye Watkins

Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins
Review by Laura I. Miller

Set in an alternate reality in which the American Southwest has dried to dust and bone, Claire Vaye Watkins’ debut novel, Gold Fame Citrus, takes readers on a haunting, speculative journey that subverts expectations on every page. Combining characters who refuse to slip easily into prescribed roles with prose that experiments with form and points of view, this novel centers on themes of the uncanny, the untamable, the unattainable, and the inevitable—both within our environment and ourselves.

The novel begins after a severe drought has decimated the Southwest. We follow main characters Luz Dunn, an abused model and former child star, and her hopeful savior, Ray, an AWOL soldier, surfer, and drifter. In spite of the desolation and calls for mandatory evacuation, the two decide to settle in an abandoned mansion—Luz parading around in the previous owner’s extravagant wardrobe while Ray builds half-pipes in the yard.

As the novel progresses, the setting begins to take on a persona of its own, and yet Watkins sidesteps overt environmental criticism and blame-placing by establishing a rule up front: Luz and Ray agree never to discuss the drought: “Because they’d vowed to never talk about the gone water, they spoke instead of earth that moved like water. Ray told of boulders clacking together in the ravine, a great slug of rubble sluicing down the canyon.” With politics shuffled off-stage, the reader is free to experience the eeriness of a waterless climate and the bizarre motivations of the characters who inhabit it.

Driven by nostalgia, self-importance, lethargy, and mysticism, Luz and Ray winnow away their cloudless and dust-strewn days until the boredom becomes unbearable. First, they visit a nearby community where they buy a can of $200 blueberries and witness drug-fueled rain dance ceremonies. Later, the pair is asked to watch a toddler, Ig, and suspecting abuse, they kidnap the child and adopt her as their own. This decision sets them on a quest out of the parched desert and into the remaining fertile territories of the US, where the three are separated and nearly die until being rescued by Levi, a diviner who claims to find water by supersensory means. Once reunited, Luz and Ray manage to escape the cult leader’s clutches, but the fairy-tale conclusion Luz has been expecting, in the end, eludes her.  

I read this book as part of an Apocalyptic Fiction class led by Alexander Lumans at Lighthouse Writers Workshop. We read it after post-apocalyptic novels like The Last Man, The Road, The Dog Stars, Elysium, and Gone Away World, and many of our discussions were about the ways in which Gold Fame Citrus subverts the post-apocalyptic genre. For instance, it’s not technically an apocalypse because a) not everyone, or even most people, die; and b) only a region of the United States is affected—the rest of the country, the North, Northwest, Southeast, and Southwest, is (thankfully, horrifically) just fine.

Luz, too, defies the typical post-apocalyptic hero. An anti-hero without clear motivation, Luz is nevertheless cognizant and critical of her dependency on men and her penchant for drug-addled mistake making. When separated from Ray, she tells her rescuer, “I was always in need of saving. That was our deal—damsel, woodsman.” The narrator makes references to Luz’s “shallow, selfish way,” even when she chooses motherhood, which is so often portrayed as a saving grace for characters in the post-apocalypse.

In doing so, Watkins allows room here for the menagerie of human responses, including the depression, hopelessness, and lost sense of purpose, that often follows the birth of a child—for men and women. In fact, what most distinguishes Luz as an atypical post-apocalyptic character is that she doesn’t change at all. In the end, Luz still doesn’t want anything except male attention and its superficial validation: “She wanted to be the person he once mistook her for: open and purposeful all at once. But she was meager, shut. That was, after all this supposed transformation, all this movement and light, her rotten way.” The lack of a traditional character arc makes Luz as unexpected as she is intriguing.

During the class, we also discussed the tendency for post-apocalyptic novels to whitewash their survivors. In Gold Fame Citrus, Luz is described as Chicana. Though this aspect of her personality fades and race never becomes a direct focus, Watkins’ inclusion of characters with diverse backgrounds creates a more realistic representation of the world than most mainstream American novels.

Finally, we considered how the screenwriting acronym MMM (Moments Make Movies) manifested in Gold Fame Citrus. I never subscribed to the MMM philosophy because it implies that scene takes precedence over interiority and atmosphere. But you know you’re in the hands of a master when a scene envelops all—rises up off the page, and images burn onto the metaphysical plane. This scene, about halfway through the book, stuck with me:

“Luz plucked a yucca tine from its socket, then another and another, revealing an arid cavity inside the tree. She looked out over the miles and miles of pale lifeless specimen. This was no forest but a cemetery. Ray felled another plant husk and crushed it beneath his boots, its desiccate death rattle vastly satisfying. Ig reprised her hiccup laugh and clapped. She had never clapped for them and so Luz clapped, then toppled and crushed another tree. Ig clapped again, triumphantly.”

The dust, the dunes, and waterless expanses between them provide a horrifyingly believable backdrop for Luz to showcase her flawed and mistake-addled, but entirely sympathetic and realistic, way of being. The land-ravaging dunes can’t be harnessed by any means, scientific or mystical, and Ig, the child at the center of the quest, can’t be molded into the savior that her caretakers desire her to be. Above all, these characters thirst, literally and figuratively, for intimacy. Tragically, as they eventually discover, love does not conquer all. Instead, like the yucca trees that once populated the novel’s scorched landscape: We are dust


About the Author:
Claire Vaye Watkins is the author of Battleborn, which won the Story Prize, the New York Library Young Lions Award, and the Dylan Thomas Prize, and was named a best book of the year by NPR, The Boston Globe, the San Francisco Chronicle, and more. She has been named a National Book Foundation "5 Under 35" and a Guggenheim Fellow, and has received the American Academy of Arts and Letters Rosenthal Family Foundation Award. Her stories and essays have appeared in Granta, The Paris Review, Ploughshares, Glimmer Train, and elsewhere. Watkins is an assistant professor at the University of Michigan and codirector with her husband, the writer Derek Palacio, of the Mojave School, a creative writing workshop for teenagers in rural Nevada.

About the Reviewer:
Laura I. Miller is the program coordinator at Lighthouse Writers Workshop. Her editorial articles and features have appeared in Electric Literature, Lit Hub, Bustle, Sonora Review, Fairy Tale Review, Oxford American, and elsewhere. She graduated with an MFA in fiction from the University of Arizona and is currently at work on a novel.