In an essay called “On Pandering,” author Claire Vaye Watkins claims that, for her entire career, she has been unconsciously assimilating the values of the prejudiced, male-dominated literary community. “I wanted to write something Cormac McCarthy would like,” she says, “something Thomas Pynchon would come out of hiding to endorse, something David Foster Wallace would blurb from beyond the grave.” This is coming from the author of the award winning story collection Battleborn, which takes the following as its subjects: young parents embracing the idea of having a child, teenage girls navigating sexual abuse, foreigners in Nevada brothels, gold prospectors, and the Manson Family commune. For those of us who have read her work, Watkins’ claim might come as a surprise, but that’s exactly her point — the patriarchal frameworks that shape us are so pervasive that they are nearly impossible to see. “On Pandering” is a braided essay that connects this male-centric blindness to the cultural lagoons of college towns, to our negative value judgments of “domestic” or “sentimental” fiction, to our repeated use of the word “unflinching” as a literary compliment, and to an exchange that every female in an MFA program has probably had: an established male writer comes to Watkins’ program, publicly dismisses her as an impish drunk girl, then lauds her equally successful, equally serious male counterparts.
Incidentally, this essay — which was met with enthusiastic applause when delivered at the Tin House Writer’s Conference — was written in the summer of 2015, several months before Watkins’ debut novel, Gold Fame Citrus, hit the shelves. What this means is that I — and probably many others — were reading this book and wondering where it might fall on the spectrum of white male pandering. Watkins’ essay basically disowns white men, and as one of them, I felt like I was reading her novel from inside a giant bell that someone had rung. It was hard not to notice certain things. For example: the un-sentimentality with which the narrator describes a Southern California transmogrified by drought. Or the protagonist, a wafer-thin ex-model who, on the second page of the story, presents her boyfriend with “a gift of herself swaddled like a chocolate in a fur coat.” Or the reviews, some of which lovingly compare Gold Fame Citrus to McCarthy’s The Road with no sense of irony.
The list goes on, but let me stop there. It would be unfair to besiege a novel with an author’s own words like that — to be unwilling to let it first stand on its own terms. Gold Fame Citrus is a speculative novel that positions us in the near-future, when extreme drought has swallowed the entire middle of North America, creating something called the Amargosa Dune Sea. Land of superheated skies, sandalanches, silver chloride. Where malignant dunes swallow I-15 in a weekend. Where militias patrol the borders of states that are still inhabitable, and whoever is left in California are there because they are too stubborn or indigent or afraid to leave.
The novel’s main protagonist, Luz Dunn, was a propaganda tool for the Bureau of Conservation before California was evacuated, and the subject of press releases even as a child: “BABY DUNN STARTS KINDERGARTEN TODAY WITHOUT GREEN FIELDS TO PLAY IN.” At the beginning of the novel, Luz is squatting in a mansion with her partner, Ray, surviving on ration cola and sweating the days away. That is, until the two of them meet a malnourished and mistreated toddler at an outdoor rave, and they decide — in an act that is both conscionable and idiotic — to take her and drive East across the desert towards civilization. All of this is established in the first few chapters of the novel, which makes Gold Fame Citrus feel more concerned with rendering the idiosyncrasies of human relationships rather than entrapping itself with the themes of dystopian literature. Luz’s past, for example, is equally marred by ration hours as it is with memories of a single father who was “not permitted by his temperament to acknowledge anything uterine, vaginal, menstrual, menopausal, pubescent.” And when Watkins writes things like “to reach back was to join hands with ghosts,” she is typically referring to personal crises that have merely been exacerbated by environmental ruin.
Stylistically, Gold Fame Citrus builds on many of the strengths of Watkins’ first book. Most of the stories in Battleborn are, by traditional standards, devoid of a plot, and yet the sentences themselves muscle onward and teach you how to read them. And though Gold Fame Citrus is part adventure, there are chapters where the narrative voice leaves its point of view characters and takes the form of the following: an omniscient compendium of environmental ruin, a neo-fauna primer (complete with pictures!) compiled by a cult leader living in the dune sea, and a psychiatric interview. Watkins is an experimenter, listmaker, and a master of specificity. Some of the most beautiful passages are simply about the landscape itself:
From space it seems a canyon. Unhealed yet scar-tissue white, a wound yawning latitudinal between the sluice of grafts of Los Angeles and the flaking, friable, half-buried hull of Las Vegas. A sutureless gash where the Mojave Desert used to be. In the pixel promises of satellites it could be the Grand Canyon, its awesome chasms and spires, its photogenic strata, our great empty, where so many of us once stood feeling so compressed against all that vastess, so dense, wondering if there wasn’t a way to breathe some room between the bits of us, where we once stood feeling the expected smallness a little…
It’s not hard to image, given the time Watkins’ spends lyricizing this “uninhabitable” west, why her characters end up feeling a spiritual, almost suicidal pull to it.
But when Gold Fame Citrus drifts far away from its main characters, that drift only rarely feels like a distraction, for the reconciliations between former selves and new ones relate simultaneously to the characters and the landscape. For example, while on their way to get advice for their journey, Luz regards a desiccated Santa Monica and thinks the following: “It was the holes where the trees had been that unsettled Luz, dark, expectant as graves. There were never so many hazards in the world as there were today. Love made you see them all.” As Luz and Ray and their semi-kidnapped toddler make their way across ruin, the main question the novel seems to be asking is whether or not a catastrophe calls people to be more than themselves and change, or whether it just further cauterizes the flaws and behavioral patterns they already had.
For a novel that contains so much, Gold Fame Citrus wraps up rather neatly, which could be a disappointment for fans of Watkins’ whirling and expansive short stories, or a delight for those more interested in tracing the arc of characters to a discernible moment. And for a novel that falls within the dystopian genre (which seems to be growing at the same rate as the dune sea), it does chart familiar territory. We’ve all seen those pictures of California in the summer, haven’t we? The drained lakes. The black balls they are dumping into bodies of water so that the sun doesn’t evaporate the surface. The report saying 2015 was the hottest year recorded, ever. But to her credit, Watkins is a Mojave Desert native who knows this landscape as well anyone, which seems demonstrated by the fact that her characters don’t appear that surprised or horrified by what’s going on, and instead drift towards the Dune Sea like a new home. So while Gold Fame Citrus might be just one of the many environmentally disastrous futures we can imagine, it’s among the most engaging and convincing.
And yet, as I write all this, I can’t help but return to Watkins’ Tin House essay. When I say, “It’s among the most engaging and convincing” I hear her saying back to me, “Glad you like it — it was made for you.”
Which isn’t an altogether bad thing, of course. The problem, instead, might be that Gold Fame Citrus is tracing an artistic lineage that everyone is already familiar with. By reading and loving Gold Fame Citrus, maybe I haven’t had to travel very far. Maybe my love came easy, which might mean that it isn’t love after all, but something else — something I’m not altogether aware of yet.
John Englehardt is a Seattle-based fiction writer whose work can be found in The Stranger, Sycamore Review, and The James Franco Review.