IN THE POST-EVACUATION, drought-stricken California landscape of Claire Vaye Watkins' novel Gold Fame Citrus, we meet Luz Dunn. She's a former model and poster child for the Bureau of Conservation, who spends her days reading and indolently trying on the Hermès scarves and sequined gowns of a starlet whose abandoned Laurel Valley home Luz and her boyfriend, Ray, are squatting in. When this feckless hero encounters a neglected toddler living among a menacing local gang, Luz becomes, for the first time in her life, powerfully motivated. She decides to rescue the child, even though the consequences will mean that she and Ray must flee to the only place worse than the dried-up Hollywood Hills: the lethal sand dunes of the Amargosa.
Like many post-apocalyptic narratives, Gold Fame Citrus envisions a world that is the hellish consequence of our current excess and faults. The novel delivers incisive social commentary, and at its best does so while avoiding the overly familiar discourse of eco-disaster narratives. Luz and Ray vow never to talk about "the gone water"; instead, they speak "of the earth that moved like water." While the boiling sulfur pools, fields of desiccated yucca like "ghostly gray cellulose carcasses," and the mysterious dune sea of the Amargosa are horrifying, Watkins' tremendous imagination for landscape is always her strength and a literary pleasure. When we discussed the desert's menace and allure in an interview, she confessed to wanting to "put people I know into Jeeps and drive them out to the desert." "Art is the next best thing," she said, and indeed in her hands it is. Coupled with her ability to create magical sentences, there are many pages of Gold Fame Citrus that are among the best I've read.
Watkins is an explorer not only of her own imaginary landscapes, but of the novel's form, and some reviewers have wondered about sections that seem out of place—a sudden sojourn to a community previously unknown to this novel, a man flying in an airplane above the Amargosa. I much preferred these, however, to other moments that felt too much in service to the novel-as-entertainment. One-off sections such as a taxonomy of new desert fauna reminded me of some of what I liked best about Watkins' acclaimed 2012 short-story collection, Battleborn. They aren't rough edges, but narrative shapes that feel fresh and surprising.