WHERE CALIFORNIA ends near Yuma, you can still find the remnants of a wooden plank road, a century old, crossing a sea of sand dunes that often doubles for the Middle East in Hollywood movies. I think of that plank road often, in these times of drought — as a long-ago marker of our impending future. It no longer seems implausible to imagine Los Angeles a century from now, shriveled and water-depleted, where the 405 freeway is crumbled decking over scrub-brush, as bygone as that plank road.
Or take another portentous sign from the desert, the dry lands: the Salton Sea. Growing up in California, the body of water I best remember is not the Pacific Ocean but an inland sea whose existence we owe to the negligent water engineering of a century ago. Flooded canal-works refilled the Salton Sink, dry since pre-history, and the run-off of industrial agriculture has replenished it ever since. But it’s likely that sometime this century, unless expensive and coordinated action is taken by several state and local agencies, much of the Salton Sea will return to salt flats. By then, the dry sea-bed will have accumulated a century of agricultural pollutants. The Salton Sea turned ecological disaster — into skeletons of migratory birds and dust storms of pesticide — will be the final sale price of our winter lettuce, our melons, and the alfalfa that fattens cows for our burgers and steaks.
I sketch this climate of abandoned roads and pesticidal storms, of California-as-disaster, not as a doomsayer, but because that possible future is what propels Claire Vaye Watkins’ first novel, Gold Fame Citrus. The novel is a nihilistic reckoning with the exploded fantasia of the West, set in a devastated near future where the trees have all died, blueberries are sold in narcotic quantities at exorbitant prices, and a ‘dune sea’ called the ‘Amargosa’ is steadily sanding away much of California’s geography. For a book about a dry future, Watkins writes in a torrent, her language flooding the psychedelic landscapes of her ruined California. It’s a book that could prove prophetic, and one already terrifyingly expressive of our cultural moment in which the slow-motion disaster of Western drought — a disaster more than a century in the making — has finally become un-ignorably visible.
Watkins is the author of a much-praised collection of stories, Battleborn, and the best stories in that collection radiated with an apocalyptic shimmer and ghost-town obsession. Gold Fame Citrus reads less like a departure from these concerns than an intensification of them.
The title is spoken bitterly early in the book: “Your people came here looking for something better. Gold, fame, citrus. Mirage. They were feckless, yeah? Schemers. That’s why no one wants them now.” (23). If feckless schemers are not quite the sum total of California’s historical settlers, they are nevertheless the variety that most interests Watkins. (Let’s take a moment to pity the poor health-seekers, all those tubercular sufferers who migrated to California not for money or fame, but only looking to breathe again). In Watkins’s California, forced evacuations have left behind a population of hardscrabble misfits, prophets, and con artists, and the fleeing and dispossessed have so over-burdened the rest of the country that they’re derisively called “Mojavs.” Like waves of immigrants before them, Mojavs have been pushed to the social margins. What remains of the state is a great colony of the unwanted.
Despite the chaos that reigns in this denuded California, Gold Fame Citrus hums with thrilled possibility at the spectacle of the state depopulated of squares — gone are the techy rich, the Hollywood pretty, the country-club Republicans. What’s left is a feral, semi-criminal, orgiastic festival of thirsty partiers who have refused to bow to the government’s desire to evacuate them and nature’s hostility to their needs. One early scene, at a carnivalesque beachside bonfire called the “Raindance,” plunges us into “a free-for-all of burners and gutterpunks caterwauling and cavorting in the dry canals of Venice Beach, sending up music from that concrete work of silt and graffiti and confettied garbage weaving fourfold through the nancy bungalows.” Punks, hippies, and dreamers finally have the golden dreamland to themselves. The tweakers will inherit the earth.
The principle figures of Watkins’ novel are a cobbled together nuclear family: Luz, a former model whose emotional life is stubbornly fortified against intrusion; her boyfriend, Ray, a war veteran who imagines Luz as a kind of redemptive project; and a baby, Ig, who early in the book is “rescued,” or perhaps stolen, by Ray and Luz from a nomadic clan of sinister burn-outs who are not offering the baby proper care. The novel follows this trio as they move from squatting in an abandoned mansion in the Los Angeles hills — “laurel-less canyon,” Watkins calls it — and onto the road, in search of a more stable home for baby Ig. The journey amounts to a reverse of the Westward migration — it’s now back toward Kansas that people go to be reborn.
Tribulations of separation and re-unification among this trio constitute the bulk of the plot of Watkins’s novel, but geographically the book centers on its greatest invention, the “Amargosa” — a dune sea that grows unaccountably bigger each day, swallowing up cities and towns and whole ranges of mountain. Though the federal government has officially declared this dune sea a wasteland, a commune has taken up residence nearby, led by a cultish visionary named Levi. As the Amargosa moves and grows each day, Levi’s encampment moves with it, “rippling” alongside, rolling through abandoned towns. All the while, Levi’s miraculous dowsing supplies the encampment with plentiful water (baby Ig gets her first bath), and Levi passes out psychedelic roots to be chewed by his bevy of tripped-out followers. Levi has big plans for Mojav salvation and national recognition, and whether he’s a madman or a holy one is uncertain. Luz comes to believe in what Levi has managed to create out in the Amargosa — a colony of free-love healers and mystics, a microcosm of the dream of the West at its most freewheeling.
Though Luz is the protagonist of the novel, her intense guardedness, which occasionally gives way to impulsivity and selfishness, makes her harder to comprehend than the apocalyptic California she inhabits. Luz is repeatedly accused by other characters of withholding and hiding herself, and we, as readers, are asked to struggle with her defensiveness, too — to read around it and through it. It’s perhaps for this reason that the novel seems to find its surest footing and most gripping pace when Ray’s narration crashes up alongside hers, when we’re liberated from Luz’s cordoned-off psyche and become critical observers of, rather than inhabitors of, her self-protective distance.
As the novel progresses through its middle sections, the ever-present tightness of Watkins’s short fiction begins to loosen. In certain stretches, the novel’s language will reach for one more clause, one more word, just as scenically the novel will branch out to include another sinister landscape, or a bestiary, or a new chorus of voices. Watkins’s stories, by contrast, often displayed a tighter economy. I offer this not as a prescription for a wholesale return to her earlier style, as much as a description of the maximalist direction Watkins’s has headed in her attempt to match the cataclysm she depicts. There’s an obvious desire in Gold Fame Citrus to venture beyond the accomplished economies of Battleborn, to hit the novel’s open road, press the gas, and see what the engine will do.
But there are moments, I think, where this speed-demon of a novel might have benefited from the condensed, quivering intensity that Watkins manages in pivotal scenes of her short fiction. Take this scene, in the story “The Past Perfect, The Past Continuous, The Simple Past,” when Michele, a young Italian tourist visiting Las Vegas with his friend Renzo, must make a phone call from his motel to inform Renzo’s parents that Renzo is missing in the desert, and feared dead:
Michele wove the coils of the phone cord between his fingers for a moment. Then he lifted the phone, input the codes from the phone card, and dialed his own parents instead. His mother answered and asked whether everything was okay. She sounded more exposed than a mother ought to. He told her yes, everything was fine. More lies came warmly to him then. “Actually, something happened,” he said in Italian. He told his mother he’d left his wallet on the beach in Los Angeles and someone had taken the money. His mother comforted him. She teased him gently for being so naïve. She thanked God that it was only that. She said she would have his father wire him more spending money. I love you, his mother said before she hung up. Be good.
With brutal efficiency, Watkins exposes Michele’s cowardice and grim opportunism. The psychology is insightful (“She sounded more exposed than a mother ought to”), and suspense and nausea well up with every next sentence. His best friend is going to die and Michele is wheedling a little cash out of his mother?
Compare that passage with a similarly pivotal emotional reckoning, for Luz, in Gold Fame Citrus:
“Yes, yes, you’re right, yes!” She flung the words and watched them burst on the wall. Yes went to piece against the dome, wet and shattersome and dazzling. Yes came from her like a column, a beam of yes prismed in the room, each yes a starburst, a sunbeam fractal tessellation into eternity. Each yes a glowing thunderstorm, cool jewels in the deep pit of the earth radiating with positive energy, and though Luz knew each was empty she stuffed their hollow hulls with straw and positivity and stacked these, and with her yes she kept the bombs at bay.
Naturally, there’s an immense gulf between the psyches of the two characters who center these passages — swooning visionary Luz, chewing mind-altering roots on the Amargosa, is a character with a different consciousness, and thus a different language, than the feckless Italian boy. The real issue is that there are climactic passages in the novel where one comes to expect a foot firmly on the gas — and these insights can arrive with less force than the tautly architected withholding that characterizes Watkins’s best stories.
Watkins’s novel, for all its fantastical imaginings, is a haunting depiction of the potential endgame of our present circumstances. As yet, we have no Amargosa. But how much less terrifying, exactly, is what we are living through? How much better is this spectacle of fallowed farmland, an evaporating Salton Sea, faltering Sierra snowpack, groundwater pumped to emptiness — the slow violence of a long drought?
I use this term ‘slow violence,’ which I take from Rob Nixon’s book of the same name, because our present water woes have been so long in the making. “Slow violence,” Nixon writes, is “violence that occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space, an attritional violence that is typically not viewed as violence at all.” This is the violence of climate change or mismanaged water policy — a violence so delayed, dispersed, and attritional as to not register as violence while it is being enacted. Do we start with the Law of the River, by which Western states consecrated what they could claim of the Colorado River’s water? There would be no Southern California without the Colorado River, but water claims for decades have outstripped what the river actually offers — “paper water,” it’s called. We’ve long since been laying political claim to a resource that doesn’t actually exist.
Of course, not all of the drought’s havoc is due to political mismanagement — droughts are cyclical players in California’s history, and if this one is the worst ever recorded, possibly due to the global human activity of climate change, then that can’t entirely be blamed on California’s political management or shockingly lax water usage policies. But we have always known — or have no good reason not to know — that Southern California’s cities were only made moist with great, engineered effort. And we could, or should, have known that a severe drought would someday come. We might have planned accordingly, and we didn’t. Such is the problem of slow violence — of disasters which occur in geological or climatological time frames that dwarf our short life spans (and shorter election cycles).
To read Watkins’s novel against this current climatological landscape is a bracing, brutal experience. Intriguingly, Gold Fame Citrus seldom expresses a sense of nostalgia or elegy for a lost California — it’s a book too wised-up for that, plunging instead into a brave and bitter nihilism that pushes back against thoughts of easy redemption. We are stuck with what we have done and with who we are, Watkins suggests, and a little rain dance, a little commune life of hallucination and orgy, might conceal that fact temporarily, but will never undo it. The achievement of Watkins’s book, as with the best apocalyptic fictions, is to make slow violence visible — to bring before our eyes the consequences of the invisible violence we do, and have done, to our lands and to ourselves.