Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins
*this review contains serious spoilers – don’t read unless you want to know the entire plot and ending*
I’ve been looking forward to reading this book for a while. It came from a list of ‘Excellent first novels’, and it is an excellent first novel, and just an excellent novel overall. But I was also hugely disappointed and it was all the fault of the ending.
Gold Fame Citrus is set in post-upheaval America; water is scarce, and in California and the Mojave desert, where we read our story, it is almost non-existent. We meet Luz and Ray, displaced anti-evacuees living in a forgotten starlet’s mansion in LA, eking out their existence in a world of tense and overwhelming heat, wind and light. They both fight their own inner demons: Ray is AWOL from the military after working as a medic, softening the nightmares of soldiers with drugs, and Luz is unhealed from her mother’s suicide, her father’s devil-filled sermons, and the photographers that abused her as a child-model. They keep each other going in the heat and the dryness, until their lives are changed by Ig, a young girl who wanders up to them in a crowd of violent drug-filled fellow-anti-evacuees. In a barely considered decision they take the two-year-old, fearing for her safety if they leave her with ‘her people’. The child gives them hope, bringing them together anew, and they soon realise they can no longer live on the edge of a water-less world. They flee into the Mojave desert, towards the Amargosa dune sea, an endless living dune blown across several states and growing daily, swallowing roads, towns, mountain ranges and Las Vegas whole. When their car runs out of fuel and Ray leaves them to find help, Luz and Ig are rescued by a group of people living on the edge of the dune sea, led by the self-determined deity Levi. Believing that Ray is dead, Luz falls into herself, slowly healing physically from the dehydration and pain of their time in the desert, but rudderless, raw and disenchanted inside. Levi and the people in the camp show her the ways of the dune, which is presented as a force not just of nature but of the spirit. They believe they were ‘called’ to the dune, that the dune ‘accepts, rejects and curates’ those who should and should be there. Luz finds the empty, desolate parts of herself filling with hope and wonder; hope for her and Ig’s future, and wonder at the almost spiritual way in which Levi is attuned the dune, open to its secrets, and able to find water in a water-less environment. She is pulled into Levi’s orbit, intoxicated by his passion, knowledge and connection with the dune.
Then Ray returns. And so begins a tense time in which Ray points out Levi’s deceptions, and the camp quickly turns against Ray, believing him to be poisonous to their connection with the dune. Luz is torn, and soon realises that she has allowed herself to be deeply deceived. She and Ray plan an escape, but when Luz confronts Levi, she realises that the damage she has caused Ig is too much; she believes that she is worse than Ig’s first people. They leave Ig with the people of the camp, and as they drive away they are chased by rain. The rain floods around their vehicle, and Luz opens the door to feel the water she prayed for for years. She is pulled under and drowns. Ray survives, driving to Wisconsin. And that’s the end.
There is so much good in this novel. The story is fascinating, deep, complex and full of haunting parallels. The writing is rich, almost poetic, and there are so many incredible images; every sense is used in evoking the harsh dryness of the landscape, the scarcity, danger and beauty of living in a world with almost no water, and the painful lives of the people who find themselves on the edges of the ocean, the dune sea, the desert, and their own sanity. Watkins describes the prices paid for fruit and vegetables that are inedible: sour, soft, bruised, shrunken, shriveled and worm-ridden. She describes the landscape of the Mojave desert as though looking at a topographical map, detailing the winds, weather patterns and human engineering that caused the drought and then the endless dune sea. Her descriptions of the dryness that has afflicted California are haunting; the whistling of the wind over parched sand and earth, the petrified trees that disintegrate with one touch, the grime and dust that cannot be washed away, not even from the body, because there is not enough water.
The ending is so incredibly unsatisfying. I thought at first that I’d missed something; there is a short chapter near the end, just before Luz and Ray leave Ig and the camp, that is written as psychiatrist’s notes, in which a doctor is conversing with Levi about the events before and after Luz and Ray’s departure. Which means Levi, and presumably the others, survive the flood and are taken to some kind of civilised place with doctors who are interested in knowing about what happened. But there is nothing else, no clues to the questions: does Ig survive? What happened after the flood? Was Levi punished for the things he did? Or was his plan to save the dune successful? Was the rain enough water needed to bring the world back to life? Did the dune sea continue to grow and envelop everything in its path?
And that leads me to the very end, in which Luz suddenly dies and Ray apparently lives. Luz’s final words, as she steps from the vehicle into the flood waters, are ‘I’d be ok if I could just get my feet under me’, which basically sums up her character arc through the whole book and draws a neat parallel between her death and her mother’s suicide by drowning. After so many people try to save her throughout the story perhaps her death is to demonstrate that even she cannot save herself.
Her dying is entirely in line with the rest of the book; she survived severe drought, blistering desert, the apparent death of Ray, the intoxicating effects of Levi’s influence, and the parting with Ig, only to pass away carelessly and easily. She is not a likable character and several times her actions caused me to deeply dislike her on a personal level, but after having been through so much I had become attached to her in a strange way and her death has left me wondering for days now.
This book is well worth the read, if not for the strange and melancholy characters and darkly foreshadowing plot then for Clare Vaye Watkins’ incredible prose.