Battleborn, Claire Vaye Watkins’ 2012 debut short story collection, introduced the literary community to a writer gleaming of the American West. Battleborn went on to win the year’s Story Prize, and it solidified her position to be recognized by the National Book Foundation’s “5 under 35” yearly list. Now, three years later, Watkins is back with her debut novel, the surreally gorgeous and apocalyptic Gold Fame Citrus.
Watkins sets her novel in Los Angeles following the “drought of droughts.” From the first descriptions of the burning lands and the dry landscapes, Gold Fame Citrus feels important, oscillating between timely and timeless sequences. For all we know, this could be the California of tomorrow or the one of a year from now.
Luz Dunn, Gold Fame Citrus’ heroine, is inside an abandoned mansion when we meet her. She is restless, trying on clothes, daydreaming of getting a pet, and craving blueberries. She’s a fallen celebrity, an ex-posterchild of a water conservation project, and she craves purpose—a meaning. She’s largely alone. The only person with whom she has much communication is the former soldier gone AWOL Ray, her housemate and friend.
Luz and Ray are almost content in their nothingness—almost. The pair decides to leave their safe spot and venture outside to a nearby party. Once there, they see people who are not as similar to them as Luz and Ray believed. These people are a raucous group, oozing with violence and filth. Luz and Ray come across a little girl called “Ig.” The abandoned child is dirty and hurt, so Luz and Ray take her in. The act of making a family changes everything for the woman and the man.
Almost immediately, Luz recognizes that Ig cannot live in her and Ray’s mansion. It’s not safe; The entire West isn’t safe. They need to make it to the East, where there are reports of trees, food, and water. So, they begin their trek to make a better life.
Readers familiar with Watkins’ work know that sentimental, happy endings are not to be expected in her fiction. Don’t worry.Gold Fame Citrus is written by the same Watkins you’ve come to know. Luz gets uncomfortable almost immediately after leaving her house. Watkins describes Luz’ restlessness: “Each moment she was farther from home than she’d ever been. She couldn’t get comfortable. Whichever way she arranged herself there was something to burn her: the metal tongue of the seat belt, the hot nub on the e-brake, the dash gone waxy, the scorching leather against her thighs, sweating as though still some live thing’s hide.” She wants to turn around. She wants her safety back. She is unsure of herself—and her ability.
After their truck runs out of gas, Ray refuses to take Luz and Ig with him to get help. She begs him, “Please no. Please! I can’t do this by myself.” Luz believes that she can’t do things, but she can, and she does. Luz comforts the young girl until she can go no more. Abandoned by Ray, Luz fades into the overwhelming environment that surrounds her.
Luz’s dive into a world of blackness is comforting to her. She’s done what she was supposed to do. She’s died protecting a child—her child. But, it’s not that easy. Life comes back to her even as she rejects it: “When Luz came back it was her body that came first, tugging her behind it.”
When she opens her eyes a group of nomads consisting of prophets, preachers, and cultlike extremists surround her. She finds Ig suckling a large woman’s breast. The milk is probably the first real nourishment Ig has had in her life. Luz sees blueberries. These survivalists offer hope to a woman and her child who are in search of someone or something to save them. Obviously, Luz is going to trust these people. Why would she not? How could she not?
It’s only later, after she has time to step outside and examine who she is becoming and what she is believing, that Luz realizes who these people are and what they are doing to not only her and Ig, but also to themselves and those who might be near them.
Luz’ scenes inside the closed, cultlike community’s world are some of the most emotionally draining throughout Watkins’ novel. Much of the emotional pull likely has to do with Watkins’ own life, being the daughter of one of Charles Manson’s most loyal followers and helpers. Watkins has lived pieces of the story that she tells.
Watkins’ prose is beautiful. It’s simultaneously surreal and gritty. She has a way to pull us in and then cut us loose just before we fall over the cliff with her characters.
Motherhood is a major focus throughout Watkins’ novel. Luz feels contradicted about her relationship with Ig. She’s not a performer, but she is. She is a performer, but she is not: “Here, the damsel delivered her greatest role. She played long-suffering, she played pure. A mother. Only—and her coach had said this would happen, the miraculous transmutation into character, a notion that Luz had always found a little frightening—she wasn’t playing. Another surprise. Here, she was a good woman.” Watkins’s novel shows us that motherhood and womanhood are not the same. You can, after all, be a fully-realized woman without becoming a mother.
Gold Fame Citrus also explores the idea discovery quite nicely. Self discovery, natural discovery, both are essential to life. The novel is neither descending nor humbling. Instead, it’s genuine. It’s a kaleidoscopic painting of life as it is.
Watkins has crafted a novel that asks us to truly examine our soul. Are we who we say we are? Are we happy with that life? As Watkins demonstrates with Luz, it’s ultimately up to us, not society, to determine what it is that we need to be fulfilled.
Claire Vaye Watkins is one of today’s bravest and most honest writers, and her debut novel Gold Fame Citrus is a masterful examination of our helplessly wandering selves.