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.
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.
Watkins, Claire Vaye. Gold Fame Citrus (Riverhead Books, 2015).
Buy Gold Fame Citrus here
Claire Vaye Watkins’s web site