In a few short years, post-apocalyptic literary fiction has passed from bracing novelty to marketing cliché. It has gotten so that when I see the words “pandemic flu” or “environmental cataclysm” on the back of a novel by a literary author, I have to resist the impulse to roll my eyes and move on. How many more ways, really, can writers of the Gen X and Millenial generations, expiating their guilt over having been born at the crest of a waning empire, game out the baroque means of their own destruction?
Part of my frustration with post-apocalyptic literary fiction is that its authors too often elect not to explore the nature of the calamity that has befallen the world they are writing about. Even in Station Eleven by my Millions colleague Emily St. John Mandel, which is a marvelous novel, the pandemic flu that culls all but a few of our planet’s billions of inhabitants strikes out of nowhere, leaving the characters survivors of an act of an angry, but essentially unknowable God. God has spoken and he isn’t pleased, these novels seem to say, but it wasn’t us who brought about Judgement Day.
So I was gratified to see, midway into Claire Vaye Watkins’s Gold Fame Citrus, an entire chapter devoted to the environmental cataclysm at the heart of the novel. More gratifying still is Watkins’s willingness to place the blame for the drought that has turned the western United States into a gigantic desert not on God, nor on some government conspiracy or faceless corporate cabal, but squarely on the shoulders of her readers — ordinary, middle-class residents of the American West. Who else, Watkins asks, has for so long blithely drained the aquifers, built sprawling cities atop deserts, and dammed and diverted the mighty Colorado River to the point that most years it dries up miles before it reaches the Gulf of California?
“If this was God,” she writes,
he went by new names: Los Angeles City Council, Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, City of San Diego, City of Phoenix, Arizona Water and Power, New Mexico Water Commission, Las Vegas Housing and Water Authority, Bureau of Land Management, United States Department of the Interior.
Gold Fame Citrus, then, takes an important step away from the moral convenience of cataclysm-as-metaphor — or, in lesser novels, cataclysm-as-plot-starter — toward an angrier, more urgent form that insists its reader do more than wallow in free-floating anxiety about the future. It is telling that it is hard to reckon exactly when Gold Fame Citrus is set. Clearly, the events of the novel haven’t happened yet, but one of its central characters is a deserter from “the forever war” and the book’s cultural referrents are relentlessly contemporary. This apocalypse isn’t coming in some safely distant future. In Gold Fame Citrus, the apocalypse is now, and maybe, Watkins seems to be saying, we ought to give some thought to how to head it off.
All of which makes one wish that Gold Fame Citrus were a more consistently engaging read. At its best, the novel is a propulsively readable love triangle pitting Ray, a laconic army deserter turned California surfer dude, against Levi Zabriskie, the visionary leader of a colony of misfits living in the shadow of the great, shifting desert called the Amargosa Dune Sea. Both men vie for the affections of Luz, an ex-model left behind when the water dried up, and an orphaned child called Ig whom Ray and Luz adopt as their own in a harrowing scene at a “raindance” party in post-evacuation Los Angeles.
When this story is front and center, Gold Fame Citrus is riveting. Watkins is a sharp-eyed portraitist with the instincts of a master storyteller, and when she is on, even her minor characters leap off the page. In one slyly hilarious scene, Ray and Luz, fearing Ig’s family, whomever they may be, will come after them for stealing the child, visit a hipster couple, Lonnie and Rita, looking for help escaping the official quarantine that encircles the drought-stricken West. Lonnie and Rita, heavily pierced and tattooed, have commandeered an abandoned apartment complex in Santa Monica where they throw the I Ching and riff on how to escape the quarantine. Maybe Ray and Luz could try one of the tunnels being dug under the Oregon border? Or perhaps it would be easier to drive to Crescent City, in northern California, and swim to freedom? “Indeed, there were endless other ways, [Lonnie] said, each illegal and treacherous,” Watkins writes. “He got a visible charge as he listed them all, a little danger boner.”
Too often, though, Gold Fame Citrus suffers from The Slows. Sometimes, this is because the characters just aren’t doing very much. People wait in this novel. At one point, after she and Ray run out of gas attempting to escape the Amargosa, Luz spends a chapter sitting and sweating with Ig in the baking hot car. “Day, night, another day,” runs a typical passage. “Day. Day. Day. Why was there so much more day?” Later, Ray is locked up in an improvised prison deep in a talc mine where his cellmate has a working television, and Watkins spends several pages naming every show they watch.
More often, though, the narrative doldrums seem a by-product of Watkins’s literary and ideological ambitions. In her acknowledgments, Watkins cites a list of classic environmental texts, from Wallace Stegner’s Beyond the Hundredth Meridian to Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert, that helped shape her thinking on the West and its relationship to its dwindling water resources. Watkins seems eager to get all this in, make her reader see the multi-generational folly of building golf courses and orange groves in what was once trackless desert. But this is a very long, complex story involving decades of land-use decisions, much of which gets crammed into a single 14-page chapter of Gold Fame Citrus. Watkins’s gift for turning an elegant sentence never leaves her, but exposition is exposition, dress it as you will.
Then, too, Watkins is a child of the desert Southwest, the daughter of Paul Watkins, a follower of Charlie Manson who testified at the trials that put Manson behind bars for life. The Sharon Tate-Leno and Rosemary LaBianca murders were committed 15 years before Claire Vaye Watkins was born, but Manson and his mad Helter Skelter prophecies are clearly a model for Levi Zabriskie, who claims for himself mystical powers as a “dowser” for water and keeps his followers hooked on a heady diet of sex and a mysterious tranquilizing drug they call “brute root.”
Watkins puts her family history to mesmerizing use in passages when Luz falls under Levi’s proselytizing spell, seducing the reader into half-believing the desert prophet’s cockeyed visions. But ultimately visionary Levi and the dynamics of his sexual-mystical hold he has on his followers becomes too much for the novel, which already has so much else on its mind, to contain, and we are left with a hazy, montage-style portrait of the colony that makes it sound like a slightly more hardcore Burning Man Festival where no one ever goes home.
One sets down Gold Fame Citrus with two thoughts, first that Claire Vaye Watkins is a powerful new voice in American fiction who, thanks in part to where she was raised and by whom, can map out a largely uncharted corner of American life; and second that she has not yet written the book that will show us what she can do. Her first book, the story collection Battleborn, is excellent, but also all over the place, as first collections of stories often are. Gold Fame Citrus is more mature and unified in its vision, but also overly ambitious, as if a painter had sat down to create her masterpiece and ran out of canvas.
Then again, this may prove to be an illusion. Claire Vaye Watkins is only 31, just getting started. Who can say how many canvases she has lined up in her studio waiting to be filled?