Claire Vaye Watkins’ apocalyptic novel, Gold Fame Citrus, is set in a southern California ravaged by drought. Years of sparse rain and intense heat have stripped LA of its greenery, killing all the agriculture and drying up the already sparse water. The Mojave desert expands into a dune sea, called the Amargosa, that covers most of southern California, devoid of life and water and considered a wasteland. Most everyone has been evacuated, and those who remain live on the fringe, plundering from abandoned houses to find the means to survive.
Luz, former poster child for the Bureau of Conservation, and Ray, a veteran of “the forever war,” have opted to stay behind, making a life for themselves in an abandoned mansion, subsisting on ration cola and a meager water supply.
One day, they find a strange little girl at a rave and, seeing that she is being abused by the people she is with, take her. New to the role of parents, they leave Los Angeles, searching for a better life. They are quickly waylaid in the sands of the desert, finding prophets, strange communes and an entirely different way of life than any they had ever imagined.
In Gold Fame Citrus, Watkins focuses on how place affects people. The Amargosa is considered lifeless and barren, yet there is a community that is thriving on its outskirts, sustained by a charismatic prophet. It has driven most people out of southern California, killing many as it eats up towns and cities as it steadily marches east, yet it has a mystical pull on those who choose to exist next to it. She focuses on the glamour that is associated with death. The holdouts that live on the edge of the dune sea are drawn to it for this reason.
The prose also highlights these contrasting ideals by mixing beautiful descriptive language, often about the Amargosa’s looks, moves and interactions with the landscapes that it is swallowing, and coarse, blunt statements about what people must do to survive and interact with it. This contrast drives most of the conflict in the story, pushing the characters to find new and better ways to interact with the dangerous landscape that they have chosen to live in.
The characters are fantastic. They are allowed to be themselves and live their messy and complicated lives, and they do so unapologetically. They remain who they are throughout all of the conflicts in the story, not changing in unrealistic ways for the sake of character growth. While some might be able to use an apocalyptic scenario as an opportunity for personal growth, most people will just be trying to survive. Someone who is flaky and inconsistent before the disaster would be flaky and inconsistent after. This makes the character feel extremely realistic, real people dealing with a changing world.
This book is a phenomenal story about people trying to survive in a harsh and dry future. The story is fast paced, pulled forward through the perspectives of many different characters, and complex. It is an interesting twist on the story of the apocalyptic drought-ravaged west, one that stands out and will be remembered for years to come.