Our fictional future ain’t looking so good, and California often catches the brunt of the authorial imagination. (Exhibit A: last year’s dystopian novel "California," by Edan Lepucki.) As global warming has morphed from a topic of climatologists’ periodic reports to a reality that’s mentioned in retirement-planning advice columns, California’s demise, in the popular imagination, has gone from maybe-someday to almost-here.
So the premise of Claire Vaye Watkins’s debut novel might seem familiar. Gold Fame Citrus is set in a near future when water in California is in such short supply that the pools are all dry, tubs and shower stalls are empty receptacles that mock people with memories of bathing, dust and sand stick to everything, and nothing but the heartiest of prickly plants will grow. Even drinking water is strictly rationed, and often all that’s available to quench people’s thirst (and there’s a lot of thirst in this book) is a syrupy cola that’s been distributed around. A can of blueberries can sell on the black market for $200. Inland, an ever-expanding sand dune is gradually swallowing whole cities.
Needless to say, most people have gotten the hell out, including the starlet who inhabited the Los Angeles mansion where Luz and Ray, the couple at the story’s center, are squatting. But getting out is hard and growing harder. Armed guards control the borders to greener eastern states, as well as the Northwest, where those blueberries come from. They’re bent on keeping out the “Mojavs” – people who came to California looking for a better life (the “gold, fame, citrus” of the title) – and now are just trying to survive. Those who are permitted to enter are placed in internment camps.
Luz is one of those Mojavs, an over-the-hill model who as a girl was a literal posterchild for water preservation efforts (a coincidence that’s permissible because Watkins exploits it so richly). She couldn’t get it together to go to New York City when she still had the chance, and then she met Ray, a drifting military veteran. The two have been knocking around L.A. since, indulging in love among the ruins. Once they end up with a strange lost toddler, Ig, in their care, they decide to journey eastward, toward the hope of a better life. When "Gold Fame Citrus"moves to a commune of desert nomads led by a man who keeps them supplied with water he dowses for during night missions, it becomes a story of the hold that mysticism and the cult of personality can have when people have nothing else to cling to.
While the idea of a bone-dry California may seem familiar, the reality, in Watkins’s fiercely talented hands, is far harsher. (Taking a shower after reading a few chapters of "Gold Fame Citrus"feels obscenely luxuriant.) It’s also sadder. In one eerie nighttime scene, Luz and Ray jubilantly spy a large stand of yuccas in the desert, only to discover that they’re dead husks. They run around kicking them over, “crushing large swaths through the papier-mâché forest, trampling the flimsy giants, pulverizing the ghostly gray cellulose carcasses and sending up great clouds of dust and cinder.”
Watkins has made her California wasteland a specific place, and the landscape – both as it’s described and as it determines her characters’ fate – is reminiscent of the one that defines classic Westerns, even if the getaway is made in an old sports car with a spare gas can in the trunk, rather than on horseback. Watkins’s awareness of the past seeps into these pages in other ways, too. Where many futuristic novels settle for the menace of the unknown, only hinting at the cataclysms that led to whatever grim circumstances they describe, "Gold Fame Citrus"is intimate with the history of disaster. As in her previous short-story collection,"Battleborn," Watkins traces the past onto her landscape and her characters with permanent ink.
At key moments she pulls back to catalogue the political dealing, water squandering, and scientific hemming and hawing that led to environmental disaster: “Who had drained first Owens Lake, then Mono Lake, Mammoth Lake, Lake Havasu and so on, leaving behind wide white smears of dust? Who had diverted the coast’s rainwater and sapped the Great Basin of its groundwater? Who had tunneled beneath Lake Mead, installed a gaping outlet at its bottommost point, and drained it like a sink?” Cities, regional authorities, and federal agencies, all guilty of failing to take the long view.
Watkins’s imagination and ingenuity are astounding. But at times her cup runneth over. Even the smallest details merit inventive descriptions, which can distract from the larger story she’s telling. When Luz sweats through the slip she’s wearing during a car ride, for instance, Watkins describes the damp stains as “eclipses leeching from her armpits, a Rorschach line below her breasts.” And occasionally her story gets ahead of her, as in a section set in a detention center that leaves too many unanswered questions and features an improbable escape. But these are mere quibbles.
As I read "Gold Fame Citrus," I was less surprised by plot twists than by character twists. Luz is a woman of deep feeling who can also be impulsive, selfish, and fickle, especially when an attractive man is around. Ray is strong and competent, but isn’t always the rock he pretends to be. He sometimes infantilizes Luz, and she’s happy to allow it, at least for a time. In other words, they’re a real couple. Furthermore, though both Luz and Ray are devoted to Ig, becoming surrogate parents doesn’t change them into better people—a story arc so common that it’s shocking to see parenthood rendered as something other than a character transformation.
"Gold Fame Citrus"is a cautionary environmental vision, an unflinching critique of our need to believe in myths (especially about each other) when hope seems lost, but most of all it is a love story. That Luz and Ray are selfish when they’re pretending to be selfless, that they hurt and even betray each other, sometimes unforgivably, does not negate that love. And yet love, like water, is necessary, but not always sufficient.