Gold Fame Citrus is Claire Vaye Watkins’s stunning debut novel, following her critically acclaimed collection of short stories, Battleborn. In the near future, a cataclysmic drought has devastated California and the American Southwest, creating a massive and unforgiving sea of dunes, called the Amargosa. Luz and Ray, two lovers living amid the withered ruins of Los Angeles, cling to each other for solace. The couple has no real purpose beyond the drudgery of basic survival, and no plan to leave California. Then a strange child appears and upends their quiet apocalypse. They head east to brave the Amargosa, finally inspired to seek out the future they thought had abandoned them. To say that they are unprepared for the challenges that lay ahead would be an understatement—but if you're looking for spoilers or a plot synopsis, you've come to the wrong place. Part of the joy of reading this novel is discovering what awaits Luz and Ray when they venture into the Amargosa. In order to preserve that experience of discovery for you, Intrepid Reader, Unbound Writers CS Peterson and Mark Springer have decided to forego a traditional book review and instead reflect on elements of the novel that had them reading in awe-filled wonder.
Balancing Character and Catastrophe in a Post-Apocalyptic Dystopia – Mark Springer
I have a confession: I didn’t connect with the characters in Gold Fame Citrus as strongly as I did with the novel’s eco-dystopian, post-apocalyptic setting.
The characters are interesting, to be sure, and I was rooting for them from beginning to end. But if Luz and Ray’s story had been just another vividly rendered, psychologically nuanced tale of a young couple struggling with love and life in the modern age, perhaps set in the suburban Midwest, I wouldn’t have made it past the first chapter, Watkins’s beautiful prose notwithstanding.
Thankfully, Watkins conjures a more speculative setting: California and the American Southwest desiccated by a “drought of droughts,” the Mojave Desert transformed by fifty years of unrelenting wind into a vast dune field that soon grows so large it can only be called a sea—the Amargosa Dune Sea. The Amargosa, ever shifting, ever growing, spreads to consume a huge swath of territory, from Los Angeles to Las Vegas and beyond. Officially uninhabited and uninhabitable, it marches steadily eastward, scouring the landscape like a glacier and obliterating the myth of the American West, an all-too-plausible eco-apocalypse:
The ensuing dystopia becomes the crucible in which Luz and Ray are tested.
Given the sheer scale of the environmental and social disasters unfolding in Gold Fame Citrus, it would be easy for the Amargosa to overwhelm the other elements of the novel—atmosphere trumping substance, character, and plot. This happens in post-apocalyptic and dystopian stories all too often. Especially in post-apocalyptic narrative there is a tendency to dial up the intensity of the apocalypse as a way to create dramatic tension—the total collapse of civilization, the human race on the brink of extinction, that sort of thing. Watkins herself takes issue with these extremes an interview with Kyle McAuley for the literary website Vol. 1 Brooklyn, calling the thinking behind them “an egomania or narcissism that makes us feel more comfortable than our true insignificance.” Through the lens of a certain type of narrative, disaster becomes entertainment and spectacle, what Kathryn Schulz, in an amazing New Yorker article about the Cascadia subduction zone, identified as “a form of escapism, not a moral summons, and still less a plan of action.” Instead of forcing readers to confront existential questions and consider the fact that “we’re not special,” in Watkins’s words, the apocalypse becomes a way for us to reaffirm our fantasies of exceptionalism.
Watkins avoids this pitfall in several ways. First, she resists the temptation to crank up the apocalypse knob to eleven. The multi-generational drought and the Amargosa Dune Sea are epic disasters, biblical in proportion, but they aren’t extinction events played for vicarious, voyeuristic thrills. (In fact, the biggest problem Luz and Ray have when the novel opens is boredom.) There are no plagues or pandemics, no Chicxulub impactors, no zombies fast or slow, no last-man-standing tropes.
Second, and more important, she keeps her characters in the foreground. Except for one exquisite, breathtaking section in the second act, where she pulls back to provide an omniscient view of the Amargosa, Watkins maintains a relentless focus on “the stuff of people,” as she puts it in her interview with McAuley. Even in its most experimental moments, the book remains a story about human relationships, frailty, and fallibility. A story this reader wouldn’t have found nearly as inspired—and or as memorable—without a vast and terrible dune sea looming over it.
Luz and the Male Gaze - CS Peterson
Watkins wrote the essay “On Pandering” for Tin House in 2015. In it, she talks about that “one and only one intense and ceaseless pastime” to which girls devote their lives: “watching boys do stuff.” The endless effort to write, dress and form identities for them, towards them; how giving male voices more authority can bleed over into everything women do; subconsciously holding the art, the writing, the instruction, of men as more real and meaningful than that of women, in terms of what is good, in terms of what we should strive to attain.
Reading this essay alongside Gold Fame Citrus, I was struck by these ideas and how they are dramatized in the character of Luz, and in her actions in response to the gaze of other characters in the novel, mostly men.
From birth, Luz Dunn—christened “Baby Dunn” by the media as part of an ecological conservation PR campaign—is gazed upon. The public gauges the slow-motion environmental train wreck that is the drought and the formation of the Amargosa in light of her life’s milestones—no pools left by the time she is old enough to swim, no green grass when she starts kindergarten. The initial activity she is engaged in when the book begins—her project of trying on clothes—is for the gaze of her love, Ray. The first words we hear from his mouth infantilize her: “Looking good, baby girl!” His objectifying compliment is followed by Luz’s “zing of delight.” And who wouldn’t feel a little thrill? After all, she’s dressed as a mermaid, dew drop diamonds strung around her wrist. But this is a costume, a playtime project. She’s a mermaid in a land without water, a mermaid who cannot swim.
As a model, her pre-apocalypse profession, Luz is under the gaze of the photographers— telling her to objectify herself into a fetishized signifier. “You know what to do” they tell her, though she doesn’t, she’s just fourteen. The published images of her are larger than life. She is under the gaze of everyone, on a Sunset Boulevard billboard where the photographer sought to feature her freaky teeth.
Throughout the novel, Luz shapes herself under the gaze of three men in particular—all with prophetic eyes—each of whom needs her to be something for them. In a climactic scene, the villain (he who shall remain nameless, no spoilers!) turns a confrontation she had hoped to keep private into a public performance, where he is the director, the puppeteer pulling her strings.
The gazes that Luz is subjected to in Gold Fame Citrus are not the passive gaze into the mirror of another's eyes that Sartre goes on about. Every gaze Luz encounters seeks to define her, to shape her identity according to the beholder’s wants and needs. Tragically, Luz lacks any understanding of an identity apart from one constructed to cater to another’s gaze. She has a desire to care for Ig, the strange infant of a new era, whom she and Ray half-kidnap, half-rescue from a creepy group of degenerates at a rain dance/rave, but Luz literally doesn't know how to begin to be a mother. Another case of “you know what to do,” where she doesn’t know.
On the release of Battleborn, her award-winning short story collection, Watkins spoke of her father, who died when she was young, and how her image and understanding of him come through collected media, much written around his relationship to the Manson family:
Luz is not without a personal history; she is not bereft of facts and knowledge of herself. And she is not without agency—that magical quality that validates a true female protagonist. But she is buffeted by the conflicting needs of those who gaze upon her. She cannot shape herself to all of them at once—though she tries, to her detriment—and so by the end of her heroic journey she has no better sense of who she is. In the swirl of this overwhelming flood of expectations, she is pushed and pulled and finally looses Ig, her would-be daughter, before being cast out of the community where she thought she had found belonging.
In the novel’s last moments, floating on “silty dun water” and saying to Ray, “I have to go, baby,” Luz is still searching for her own identity, and still unable to brace herself against the forces that buffet her.
Mary Gannon, “First: Claire Vaye Watkins’s Battleborn,” Poets & Writers, September/October 2012.
Kyle McCauley, “Interrogating the Myth of the American West: An Interview Witih Claire Vaye Watkins,” Vol 1. Brooklyn, September 28, 2015.
Kathryn Shulz, “The Really Big One,” The New Yorker, July 20, 2015.
Claire Vaye Watkins, Gold Fame Citrus. New York: Riverhead Books, 2015.
Claire Vaye Watkins, “On Pandering”, Tin House, Winter Issue 2015.