California has long been America's promised land—the land of milk and honey, the land of fruits and nuts, the shimmering, forever-sunny Western land of promise. It's become the country's greenhouse state, supplier of tomatoes and avocadoes all year round, as well as the nation's tech powerhouse and dream factory. But it's abundantly clear, at least to anyone who cares to notice, that none of this can last forever. Almost thirty-nine million people now live in California, many of them dependent on water drained from the Colorado River and other distant sources. Southern California is by rights a desert, and there are all kinds of signs that it will return to that state whether we like it or not.
In Gold Fame Citrus, Claire Vaye Watkins tackles that reality head on. Her near-future California is a land of severe, unrelenting, uninhabitable drought. Her protagonist, Luz Dunn, is a Mexican-American former model squatting in an abandoned Laurel Canyon mansion with her ex-military boyfriend Ray. Luz also happens to be the drought's national poster child, chosen by the government at her birth to represent the West's valiant fight against the desert's advance. That fight failed, and so now Luz and Ray hide out on the fringes of an empty Los Angeles, evading government evacuations that would turn them into displaced and despised "Mojavs," reminiscent of the migrant "Okies" of the Dust Bowl. Their lives are aimless but undisturbed until they cross paths with a strange toddler girl named Ig, part of a roving band of roughnecks. They can't turn away from the girl's odd, backward neediness, or the obvious negligence of her tribe. They either kidnap or rescue her, depending on your point of view—and hit the road.
Unsurprisingly, things go from bad to worse. Trying to make it east under their own power, they run out of gas and water on the fringe of the world's newest, largest desert, a sand monster known as the Amargosa after the mountain range on the California-Nevada border. The Amargosa desert long ago swallowed the Amargosa range, as well as the Mojave Desert, and much more. In a lyrical, Melvillesque interstitial chapter, Watkins takes some time to excavate at least some of what's buried beneath the sands, spinning the section out farther and farther to underline just how much has been lost:
The world's tallest thermometer.
An iconic cohort of roadside fiberglass dinos.
Goldstone Deep Space National Laboratory. [. . .]
The Rio Tinto borax mine, birthplace of the twenty-mule team.
The Rainbow Ridge Opal Mine, from which was pulled "Black Beauty," the largest, purest, most expensive opal in the world, [. . .]
The Potosi mine, which made the lead which made the bullets which made such quantities of blood bloom in the Mountain Meadows massacre that Brigham Young was forced to revise his grand plan for Deseret.
Buried beneath: Quartz country. Talc country. Arrowhead country. Petroglyph country. Rain shadow country. Underground river country. Ephemeral lake country. Creosote forest country. Joshua tree country. Alfalfa field country. Solar array country. Air Force base country. UFO country. (pp. 115-116)
And so on. What Watkins wants to remind us is that California, even just Southern California, is really, really big, and stuffed full of significance for human beings—and yet it's all dwarfed by the monster dunes waiting to roll over Luz and Ray and Ig, who are mere specks by comparison.
Ray, valiant and resourceful, strikes out on his own to find help. Luz, hapless and wrong-footed, stays behind with Ig to await rescue. And despite the odds they are rescued, by a tribe of water-rich dune-dwellers led by the cultishly charismatic Levi Zabriskie. Zabriskie claims to be a dowser, able to find ephemeral springs and creeks in the Amargosa itself. He also claims that the desert is full of new, undocumented animal life—and that the American government is plotting to nuke the whole thing to glass, in a gesture both devastatingly petty and arguably efficient, since it will give them a convenient wasteland to store the country's nuclear energy waste. It's not hard to believe that the country that drained the Colorado would take such a step, but there's still something not quite right about Levi and his crew.
This is a big book, full of interludes and asides and unlikely, even fantastical insertions. Watkins has commented on what she calls her own "promiscuous aesthetic," in an interview with Vogue magazine:
I learned to stop worrying about it. I used to think: Does this belong in this kind of book? And then I started thinking, Well, I put it in there, so it must be the kind of book where that belongs. And that's when I actually started having fun writing it.
It's a fun read, too, if you don't mind an element of the dilatory and fantastic in your climate change dystopia. The first section of the novel takes a relatively straightforward, traditional narrative path, but once Luz gets wrapped up with the dune people, the story starts to break new ground. It drifts through some first-person stream-of-consciousness musings of members of Levi's tribe; outlines the history of his adopted Mormon family; examines an official government form clearing him for a high-security government job; dips into a scattershot meta-story segment probing Luz's grief over the loss of Ray; and serves up a fabulous illustrated chapter pulled directly from Levi's own "Neo-Fauna of the Amargosa Dune Sea: A Primer." The primer is really a bestiary, describing some of the new species Levi claims to have discovered in the dunes, and it kicks off with a doozy:
This hairless relative of the coyote is characterized by its bluish-gray skin. Pups are born covered in vibrant turquoise fuzz, which they quickly shed at weaning. Adults gather in a troubling to hunt.
Family: Canidae (p. 194)
These are the types of creatures Levi claims have evolved to survive in this new, harsh California. And while Luz, like all the dune dwellers, is by now regularly chewing a hallucinogenic root, it's hard to understand why she believes him. She seems to accept Levi's taxonomy of new species—including chupacabras, ourobouros rattlers, and stiltwalker tortoises—at face value, in a way that the reader can't. In another type of book, Levi's bestiary would all be in good, whimsical, science-defying fun. In this one, with its lengthy geological, climatological, and anthropological asides, it sticks out like a saguaro on a mesa.
So Levi is loopy, and Luz is self-deluded. Watkins makes it clear from the start that Luz is never going to be the resourceful one, the sensible one, the one who can organize food, water or shelter for herself and Ig. She's spent her whole life as a model, an icon, and a symbol rather than a person. Almost her only real action in the book is to kidnap Ig—a decision that promptly saddles Ray with not one dependent, but two. For some readers, Luz's passivity will be off-putting. It's hard to watch her bounce from one crisis to the next without doing anything to save herself. Time after time, other people rescue, exploit, and otherwise enact their wills on Luz. An active hero she is not, at least until the end of the book—and then the action she takes is profoundly self-defeating.
But there's another way to look at Luz Dunn, and that's as a kind of allegory for humanity. Pronounced loosely, her name is "lose done." Luz doesn't have much to start with and by the end of the book she's done—she's lost it all. You could argue that if she'd been smarter, more sensible, more active, braver, she could have prevented some of her own tragedy. You could argue the same thing about all of us, living in a world teetering on climate collapse. We all know the science. We know our petroleum-fueled, overconsuming lives aren't sustainable. But what do we do about it? Maybe we could protest, donate, devote our lives to legislating change. But that's hard. Isn't it easier to read a book, watch TV, cook dinner, worry about work or school?
This isn't a comforting book, and for some readers it won't be satisfying, either. Watkins has been in the literary news lately for an essay she wrote, "On Pandering," about shaping her voice to the expectations of mostly white, male, senior mentors and readers—and about how she's begun to break that habit. Gold Fame Citrus shows her striking out at traditional novelistic mores, collaging a story from different genres and refusing to provide us with what conventional wisdom says we want most: a protagonist who does things.
There are plenty of modern novels about catastrophic drought—Ben Parzybok's Sherwood Nation and Paolo Bacigalupi's The Water Knife are two excellent recent examples that leap to mind. You might say that climate change is in the air. But there are particular challenges to writing about crisis on a global scale, and at a global pace. One is to make the story engaging, to keep us turning pages. Another is to drive it home that these stories aren't just stories. Right now, California and the American West are still in a multi-year drought that El Niño's rains will ease, but not eradicate.
Gold Fame Citrus is a story about drought that is just as urgent, baffling, frustrating, multifarious, and hard to swallow as the world we live in. It's a story that doesn't pander, that doesn't tell us what we want to hear or show us what we want to see. Now it's up to us to decide how we feel about that.
Karen Munro's writing has appeared in Strange Horizons, Crazyhorse, Redivider, and elsewhere. She has an MFA from the Iowa Writers' Workshop and is working on a novel about strange things in the Pacific Northwest. In October she will you send you a scary story a day. You can find her at http://munrovian.tumblr.com.