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“Gold Fame Citrus”: So Long So-Cal

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Column by Susanne Bushman

bushmans@grinnell.edu

With the environmental news coming out of California most days, it’s no surprise that it has inspired some apocalyptic visions. Between drought, earthquakes and gas spills, the state seems as though the end of the world could come at nearly any given moment. In the debut novel from Claire Vaye Watkins, “Gold Fame Citrus,” Southern California has become an ever expanding desert, called the Amargosa Dune Sea, due to years of extreme drought.

The novel follows couple Luz and Ray, who have decided to stay behind while most evacuate the waterless land. They live out their days in the abandoned home of a Hollywood starlet, each choosing a project for the day to help them get through, even if it’s just Luz trying on all of the beautiful gowns that still hang in the closets.

Ray focuses on the practical, trying to keep everything running smoothly, finding water for the two of them and keeping Luz from becoming too detached and despondent. He also holds them back from leaving, because he is a military runaway.

The story tunes into the history of California, with Ray saying to Luz, “Your people came here looking for something better. Gold, fame, citrus. Mirage. They were feckless, yeah? Schemers. That’s why no one wants them now. Mojavs.” With all of Southern California unfit for nearly anyone, relocating the entire population leads to the rest of the country bearing the burden. Over time it becomes more and more difficult to evacuate.

When Luz and Ray become the parents of a young girl, who they call Ig, staying in California becomes less and less of an option. They decide to set out across the Amargosa, but as always, even the best laid plans don’t go as expected.

Ultimately, they encounter a community of people left out in the lifeless desert. Although this group doesn’t think it’s so lifeless. They claim that it would be valuable for the government if the Amargosa was empty, easier for them to use it. They feel as though they were chosen by the desert itself to be its only inhabitants.

Overall, the tale is a wild ride that’s hard to put down.

Structurally, Watkins takes risks. The narrative is broken up with sections that give hints to the scope of the story, adding to Ray and Luz’s story by showing the way that they fit into a globe altering event. The story never dwells on how the world ended up this way, but weaves the apocalypse of Southern California masterfully into the story—particularly through memories that Luz can’t seem to shake.

The writing compels this fascinating story forward but it can be, at times, uneven. And while I’m usually in for a good love triangle, the complicated relationships in the second half between Ray, Luz and a compelling cult leader didn’t exactly ring true. In short, it felt like a cop out of originality in what had been up until then a truly unique story.

As someone who has recently developed increased anxiety about climate change, this wasn’t a book that I read to relax. I won’t lie, it gave me recurring stress dreams about atomic bombs. Post-apocalyptic fiction has become one of my favorite genres, as it allows the author to recreate the world we know, often with fascinating results. Though this doesn’t fully fit into the post-apocalyptic genre, it felt like a realistic representation of what could really happen as climate change begins to have a greater impact on people’s lives.

I don’t mean for that to be a purely pessimistic thought. Ray and Luz endure some very trying things. Their resilience is truly incredible. Even just their decision to take on adoptive parenthood when they can barely care for themselves shows just how determined they are to continue to live a life that isn’t defined by sizzling heat and continual dehydration.

“Gold Fame Citrus” left me thinking for days and weeks after I finished. Through its minor faults shines originality and daring writing that is both fascinating and compelling.

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