Gold. Fame. Citrus. The three things that have brought people to California, the setting of Claire Vaye Watkins‘s beautiful and profound novel (published in the UK by Quercus, who provided a review copy).
In Gold Fame Citrus we follow Luz and her partner Ray on a journey through a drought-ravaged and polluted California. They are living in the hollow shell of a Hollywood starlet’s mansion in the Hollywood hills, only emerging to loot or purchase supplies from the black market. Those who can have left for other parts of the country or have evacuated into refugee camps, and only the dregs of society are left living in California. Known as Mojavs, they are those without papers, families, contacts or skills, and they exist in a lawless place surviving on emergency rations and limited amounts of water.
Luz and Ray are content to live this way, until they adopt a toddler called Ig during one of the regular gatherings that take place, orgiastic nights of bootleg alcohol, bonfires and dancing. Ig prompts them to want to evacuate to safety, but on their journey to safety their car breaks down. Ray goes to get help and is taken by the Red Cross to a resettlement facility, while Luz and Ig are rescued by Levi, a charismatic cult leader living in the heart of the wilderness.
Gold Fame Citrus is a harsh and unrelenting portrait of man’s self-destructive urges, both towards the environment and fellow man. Whereas Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife places much of the blame for his water-scarce world on the privileged and exploitative corporations, Gold Fame Citrus charts man’s essential inhumanity towards his fellow man, regardless of wealth, status or power. There are rare flashes of compassion in the novel: Ray’s care for Luz and Luz’s maternal urges towards Ig, but otherwise there is just selfishness and exploitation. Even Dallas’s care of baby Ig as wet-nurse is motivated by her own grief for the baby she has recently lost.
Luz acts as the exemplar victim of this culture, exploited throughout her life by others. As a child she was Baby Dunn: the poster-child for the government’s increasingly futile attempts to hold back the impending environmental chaos facing California. As a teenager she worked as a model, sexually exploited by photographers, objectified and derided for her less than ideal body shape. Although she finds protection with Ray, her upbringing has turned her into a passive victim. She is ready to be exploited by Levi, who wants to use her symbolic status as Baby Dunn to publicise his own cause.
But humanity’s behaviour pales in comparison to the brutal forces of nature. Attempts to hold back the tide of environmental change are futile: the only choice is how to change and adapt to live with it. Ultimately, Levi’s promise of a way of living in harmony with the Amargosa, the ever-expanding and inhospitable dune sea, proves to be as unfounded and doomed as the nihilistic denial of those living in the ruins of the cities.
Gold Fame Citrus may not be a comfortable novel to read, but it is beautifully written. The prose sings and the insights are searing.
Goodreads rating: 5*