Ghastly and (Im)possible: ‘Gold Fame Citrus’ by Claire Vaye Watkins

I adore Margaret Atwood — wrote my undergraduate thesis in part on her novel Alias Grace, in fact. So the other day I found myself in an embarrassment-of-riches situation, when both Atwood’s new post-apocalyptic novel, The Heart Goes Last, and Claire Vaye Watkins’s tale of future terror, Gold Fame Citrus, arrived at my house on the same day.

Which novel would I read first?!

That, I suppose, is what kids these days call a “first-world problem.” Well, I had a first-world problem, and I needed a solution. So I told myself I’d read the first twenty-five pages of each book, and the one that was most compelling by that point was the one I’d read first.

Atwood’s is very good, I’ll admit. It opens with a couple on the lam, sleeping in a car– I liked it.

But then I read Watkins’s first twenty-five pages, and I was thoroughly pulled in.  Gold Fame Citrus won the day.

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Like Atwood’s novel, Gold Fame Citrus opens with a couple surviving at the edge of the world, in a California now cut off from the rest of the United States because it has lost nearly all of its water. The couple in question is Luz, twenty-five, a pretty, damaged former model and poster child for water conservation whose religious-quack father “emancipated” her from his protection at age fourteen; and Ray, a lanky, likable, mellow war veteran whose calm practicality makes up for Luz’s occasional, hysterical helplessness.

It was important to have a project, Ray said, no matter how frivolous. The Santa Anas winged through the canyon now, bearing their invisible crazy-making particulate, and Ray said she should try to keep her hands busy. She should try not to sleep so much. Some of Ray’s projects included digging out the shitting hole and siphoning gasoline from the luxury cars abandoned throughout the canyon.

Ray, it seems, was well-prepared for this crappy livelihood by his service in “the forever wars,” and he keeps Luz alive and mostly sane. But when they find themselves at a “raindance,” enchanted by a strange, sweet, affectionate toddler–who’s almost certainly been abducted by her suspicious young guardian in order to steal her water rations–their lives change in nearly an instant. Suddenly it is not just the two of them anymore; their lives have broadened outward. Everything–as it does even in typical parenting–seems more hopeful and more terrifying.

Like this she could believe all things, the ghastly and impossible truth, plus the lie she needed badly, needed in order to put one foot in front of the other: the baby would never die.

Complicating matters is the fact that Ray is a wanted man. He went A.W.O.L. from the Marines some years before, and he had his reasons, but a background check would instantly set him up for incarceration–and where would Luz and the baby be then? They’ve got to get north to Oregon, but the only way they can attempt this is to go through the infamous Amargosa, the Dune Sea: a “vast tooth-colored superdune in the forgotten crook of the wasted West.”

Their attempt goes awry, and Luz meets up with a host of unusual characters, misfits called the Mojavs who have succumbed to the strangely seductive power of the dune sea and are living a nomadic life on its fringes. Their leader is apparent sage and water-diviner Levi, whose insight comes in part from the fact that he has once had top secret clearance while working at Idaho National Labs, site of many of the United States’s nuclear projects.

Reading that, my ears perked up instantly, for my own novel is set at Idaho Labs back in the fifties, when that land was called the Nuclear Reactor Testing Station. This land has a terrific, grim, almost unbelievable history, encapsulating the trajectory of the West: it was Blackfoot Indian land, then a Mormon settlement, then the Minidoka internment camp, and finally a military proving ground. Watkins’ decision to use this locale in her own, futuristic novel is an informed one, for she is writing about a particular incarnation of the West: the West as dumping ground and national orphan, sacrificed for the good of the more populous eastern states. We might not be the country we are without the grand vistas, rugged mountains and vast prairies of the West; we might also not be the country we are if we weren’t able to store millions of gallons of radioactive and other waste within these mountains and deep in the ground, covered by layers of asphalt and riprap. Slowly, beneath the earth, touching aquifers and groundwater, these abandoned materials–once prized, coaxed into existence–live out their sad and nearly endless lives, which eclipse our own.

The white bullet trains come in and out thrice daily, soundless, only a slight pressing and unpressing of the air. One day the repository will be filled and it will be sealed and it will stay that way for one hundred thousand years…One day all the toxic pellets we fear will be stuffed safely inside the mountain. The mountain will be sealed and will remain sealed through flash floods and ceaseless corrosion and the itchy trigger finger of tectonics. ..We believe it, even though the trains that move through town so silently you cannot hear but only feel them–those beautiful, soundless white bullets–run on the throbbing rods they ferry.

Despite sections like these, in which Watkins interjects voices other than Ray’s or Luz’s, the narrative momentum propels you forward: Will Ray and Luz ever be reunited? Will the baby survive? Is Levi the magic man he claims to be, or is there something fishy about him?

The novel feels at once both epic and very intimate, bringing you along through these characters’ minds as they navigate a terrifying world you hope you will never have to.

Claire-Vaye-Watkins

Watkins, Claire Vaye. Gold Fame Citrus (Riverhead Books, 2015).

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Buy Gold Fame Citrus here

Claire Vaye Watkins’s web site

 

Freedom’s Just Another Word: Tiffany Hawk’s ‘Love Me Anyway’

“Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose,” Janis Joplin famously sang, and though they are probably too young to know many more of the lyrics than that, I think the two women at the heart of Tiffany Hawk’s delightfully bittersweet novel Love Me Anyway would gamely sing along.

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Love Me Anyway follows two flight attendants in their early twenties.  Emily is serious, describes herself as “mousy,” and has forced herself to grow up too fast. She gets married straight out of high school to a man she doesn’t particularly love and who ends up being abusive both emotionally and physically.

If only, Emily thinks, she could be as fun and free-spirited as her friend and sometime-roommate KC. KC seems to move from one situation to the next effortlessly, loves a party, flirts (and sometimes goes home with) men, and seems to do it all with no regrets. While KC does help Emily recover her inner youth, she doesn’t disclose her own heartbreak  over a terminally ill mother and a father who left the family long ago. She tries to connect with him, but he doesn’t seem at all sorry for the way he left his daughter and wife behind.

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In trying to live up to her friend’s sense of adventure and fun, Emily overcompensates somewhat, becoming involved with a married older man who’s everything her young ex-husband was not. She’s so happy, and he’s so terrific, that the reader hopes his wife back home is a real prude or a pig or some kind of horrible bigot or something. Unfortunately, she’s not, and his beloved children at home are pretty wonderful too. What’s Emily — a good girl at heart who’s finally enjoying herself for the first time — to do?

Is freedom having nothing to lose, or is it just having no regrets?

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I read this book as a “buddy read” with my mom, who’s an avid literary fiction reader. I like to use my mom as a barometer for a book’s general readability, since she reads so widely and is not quite as dark-minded and weird (literarily, I mean!) as I am. She loved Hawk’s novel, and I caught her getting teary at the end. (The final two pages, I can vouch, are simply perfect — opening the book outward to just a wide enough scope that you sit back and know you’ve finished not just a story, but a work.)

My mom called Love Me Anyway a “page turner” and said she connected to Emily and KC. Like a true mom, she “wanted to see them make good choices.” She noticed, where I did not, that the ups and downs of air travel mimicked the characters’ search for love. She was intrigued by the insider’s eye into the world of flight attendants (Hawk writes from experience, having been one herself!) and cited one of her favorite quotes as coming from Emily’s dad: “You just have to let go of the life you wanted in order to live the life you have.”

As for me, I found it refreshing to get a take on one’s twenties that tells it like it is. How many times have you heard people lament that their twenties ended too soon, that those had been the days, all the freedom and possibility? Well, if that were really true, then why’d they ever settle down? My guess is that because, like most everyone else on earth, they felt that something was missing. For Emily and KC, very specific people are missing — parents, lovers — but I think this feeling is common among many young people, and all that freedom comes with a searching, unmoored feeling that can be downright distressing for some people.

Both KC and Emily realize they’ve been flight attendants because they are running from something:

This is the promise of the flight attendant gig. It will quickly fill this hole inside of her with foreign sounds and smells and sights. Day by day, an onslaught of new memories will push out the old.

Interestingly, I think that’s why a lot of people join the military, too. Surely, not everyone joins up because they have nothing left to lose. But aren’t they hoping to lose at least a little bit of something?

Hawk writes her twenty-somethings — early twenty-somethings! — with compassion and complexity and a good twist of wry humor, so that they are fully formed people, not just (Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth anyone?) some idea of carefree and beautiful girls.

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So, this being December 4th, here’s a question: who on your holiday list might enjoy Love Me Anyway?

Maybe that family member who travels a lot and needs a good plane read. That twenty-something who could use a break from the heavy college books, or your sister who’s in the book club, or even your grandma if she’s hip enough. Love Me Anyway has a wide appeal, and if you choose to give this one as a holiday gift you’ll look respectable, smart, literary — and maybe just a little more youthful too. Go on, buy this one. It ain’t exactly free, but it won’t give you any regrets.

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Buy Love Me Anyway here

Tiffany Hawk’s web site

Read Tiffany in The New York Times’s Modern Love

About Tiffany Hawk:

Tiffany Hawk is a former flight attendant with a BA from UCLA and an MFA from UC Riverside. Her debut novel, Love Me Anyway, was published in 2013 by St. Martin’s Press, and her short fiction and personal essays have appeared in such places as The New York Times, The Potomac Review, StoryQuarterly, and NPR’s “All Things Considered.” She has also worked as travel editor at Coast magazine and as a freelance journalist for publications that include the Los Angeles Times, Sunset, CNN.com, GQ.com, and National Geographic Traveler. Now married to an Air Force pilot and a mother of two, she is a private writing coach and has taught writing workshops at Rutgers University, Southern New Hampshire University, and The Writer’s Center in DC.