Luz and Ray live in a California where water has all but run out. They are squatting in a starlet’s abandoned mansion when they “find” a child, Ig, and decide to head east where water is rumoured to be in relatively plentiful supply. But in a world where the state hands out coca cola rations and a shape shifting super dune called Amargosa is slowly engulfing every small American town in its path, such a journey is neither safe nor straightforward. Ray’s status as an army deserter doesn’t help matters, nor do rumours of people never being allowed to leave forced evacuation camps. Nevertheless they set out to make the journey and are instantly confronted with yet more evidence of the environmental ruin that’s overtaken America – caved in highways, forests of dessicated yucca plants and the most intense heat imaginable. When their car breaks down, Ray leaves Ig and Luz in its shelter to go in search of help but never returns. They, however, are found by members of a wandering community who track the super dune and have adapted to live in its environs, dowsing for water, growing their own food and scavenging from the ruins that Amargosa leaves in its wake.
This community – and in particular matriarchal Dallas – nurse Luz and Ig back from severe sun stroke and give them a home. A grieving Luz soon grows to rely more and more on the community leader, Levi, both for his homegrown brute root that evens out the knots in life and to reflect her sense of self as a good mother, a good person. But nobody matters to Levi more than the Amargosa and the power it has given him- to curate, direct and enjoy his gift for being a charlatan.
Watkins mainly tells her story by way of a straightforward linear narrative but every so often she goes off piste, with varying degrees of success. In one instance she breaks off to present a guide to the new species that have evolved in the deserts surrounding Amargosa, which is both clever and poignant. At another point she zooms out and describes the way those flying over the super dune are intoxicated by its presence and the destruction it reaps – I felt this section worked less well and I found myself skipping pages at this point. However, her writing is always searing, unsettling and unusual, and never more so than when she’s describing the (lost) natural world. So we get, “The prospect of Mother Nature opening her legs and inviting Los Angeles back into her ripeness was, like the disks of water shimmering in the last foothill reservoirs patrolled by the National Guard, evaporating daily.” Sitting in Levi’s geodome, Luz reflects that every home is a mausoleum, a wax museum, thanks to “ferns on throw pillows coated in formaldehyde; poppies on petrochemical dinner plates; boxes and bags of bulk pulp stuffs emblazoned with plant imagery”. Watkins does tender and beautiful – when Luz and Levi find a long abandoned swimming pool, being submerged in the green water is “like being in an angel’s inner ear” – and savage parody with equal confidence. There’s a genius extended riff on TV viewing that gives us reality shows such as Embalming with the Stars, Sixteen with HIV, Midgets in Middle Management, as well as Laughing Gas, “a raunch-com about dentists innovating a myriad of ways to violate their unconscious patients”.
As a commentary on fame and celebrity culture, this book is many layered. For example, Luz is Baby Dunn, poster child for the state’s conservation movement, and has lived her life in the shadow of headlines such as “Every Swimming Pool in California to Be Drained Before Baby Dunn Is Old Enough to Take Swimming Lessons” and “Without Evacs Baby Dunn Will Die of Thirst by 24”. Her instantly recognisable face prompts Levi to cook up a scheme to protect the super dune and his community from annihilation by the authorities but, like so much in this novel (deliberately and otherwise), what you see isn’t necessarily what you get.
As dystopian literature, GOLD FAME CITRUS is far more realistic than the other books I’ve read in this genre (there’s a passage for example detailing what’s happened to the food supply: “the beef gray…pears grimy…hard sour strawberries and blackberries filled with dust…raspberries with gassed aphids curled in their hearts”). And yet I didn’t like it nearly as much. For starters, there’s barely an iota of hope that’s survived the environmental crises engulfing Los Angeles and, rather than rising to the challenges they face (whether that’s an oppressive state or the reality of an ever dwindling water table), the book’s characters are self indulgent, irresponsible and thoughtless. I wanted heroes and was sorely disappointed. Despite their names, Luz and Ray are no shining lights come to save the world. What’s more, Luz is defined almost entirely by her dependence on men, as are the other women in the book, and the cliche of the charismatic male who has everyone in his sexual thrall is tired and boring, even when satirical as it is here. Add in the fact that Luz is Latina, passive and shallow, whilst the (white) men are supposedly deep and masterful, and you have a whole host of other things that grate.
There’s some real gems in here, in particular Watkin’s ability to convey foreboding, fear and desperation. She’s clearly a talented writer and I am even prepared to forgive her for the rather abrupt ending to this book. But overall, despite much promise and potential, ultimately it left me as frustrated and unfulfilled as gold, fame and citrus are wont to do. A mirage in the desert, this book shimmers and entices but fails to really deliver.