I mean this as the highest possible praise: Gold Fame Citrus, the debut novel by Claire Vaye Watkins, is a dreadful book.
I mean, of course, the knuckle-whitening, stomach-upsetting kind of dread. It suffuses almost every single page of this gripping story, which is set in a future America cataclysmically altered by drought and climate change. This is the kind of dread that makes you want to keep reading and stop reading in roughly equal measure, the kind that has you reminding yourself every 40 pages or so that other dystopian visions of the future—Blade Runner, Brave New World, 1984—never came to pass. So this one probably won’t either, right? you ask yourself, uncomfortably.
The discomfort stems from the way that Watkins, who was raised in the American West (though she now teaches fiction at the University of Michigan), bases her particular apocalyptic scenario on a phenomenon that doesn’t seem at all fantastical or far-fetched. The primary threat in Gold Fame Citrus (the title refers to the trio of commodities that have long drawn dreamers to California) doesn’t come from an alien invader or a freedom-stripping, autocratic regime. Instead, and somehow more menacingly, it emanates from us: specifically, from our collective inattention to the dangers posed by carbon pollution and profligate water policy.
Watkins was born, she told me recently, “just up the road from Owens Lake.” Los Angeles tapped this once-giant body of water in California’s Central Valley about a century ago to slake the thirst of the rapidly expanding city via the 233-mile-long Los Angeles Aqueduct. The indelible image of the now completely dry lakebed, which the author first witnessed as a child, must have informed her later depictions of a rainless, desiccated Southwest, completely enveloped by an ocean-size and ever-morphing sand dune. The Amargosa, as this sea of sand is called in the novel, is basically the Mojave Desert metastasized: Fed by the hospitably arid conditions of an unceasing drought, the Amargosa is able to grow and drift perpetually, indifferently laying waste to highways, towns, cities, even mountain ranges.
Growing up where she did, Watkins says she was surrounded by people who didn’t take water for granted—people who were inclined by history and hardship to regard the book Cadillac Desert, Marc Reisner’s classic non-fiction account of the Southwest’s water woes, as a bedtime story. “They talked about Owens Lake like it had been drained yesterday. And they talked about Lake Mead like it was going to be drained tomorrow. We were all aware that our life out there was fragile, that it depended entirely on these bodies of water that could be suddenly slurped up.”
In the story, a pair of young lovers, Luz and Ray, are forced to flee what’s left of a crumbling and largely vacated Los Angeles after they beneficently kidnap a toddler whom they (justifiably) consider to be in danger. With the child, they head east, their supplies of both gasoline and drinking water perilously low. When they reach the rim of the Amargosa, however, they are almost immediately bested by the dune, which has so fundamentally transformed the landscape that navigation by automobile is impossible. Ray leaves Luz and the baby, ostensibly to find help. Luz, for her part, tries not to dwell too much on the death and desiccation that surround her: papery yucca trees, “completely hollow, save for some dry, twiny marrow inside,” and the bloated carcass of a bighorn sheep, “float[ing], swaying slightly in the brine” of an appropriately hellish sulfur pool.
But perhaps even more dangerous than the life-sucking dryness of the Amargosa are those people who voluntarily call it home.
Gold Fame Citrus is the latest offering to come out of a budding genre that some call “cli-fi,” or climate fiction. Along with writers like Paolo Bacigalupi and Kim Stanley Robinson, Watkins is capitalizing on the advantage well-wrought fiction often has over non-fiction when it comes to winning hearts and minds. “Fiction is really good at activating the parts of us that are empathetic,” she says. “It helps us feel what someone is feeling. And I think empathy is essential to addressing the problem.”
The problem of resource management, especially as it relates to the real-life drought affecting her native Southwest, “is not a crisis of ingenuity. It’s a political crisis. There’s a lot that we could be doing that we’re not doing.” By attaching stories to our political and public policy decisions over water, climate, and energy, Watkins believes, we bring imagination into the problem-solving equation. Asking readers or viewers to consider the long-term effects of protracted drought on an ecosystem by showing them an extrapolative bar graph is one thing; asking them to consider these same effects by putting them in the shoes of a terrified young woman who’s desperately fighting for her life—and that of a baby—is quite another.
“I still remember the first time I ever saw the bathtub ring around Lake Mead,” Watkins recalls. “I was young, and it was easy at that age to imagine a big drain at the bottom, sucking out all the water. Later, of course, I found out that was exactly what had happened.”
Art imitates life; truth is stranger than fiction. The reason these clichés are called truisms is that they’re true. But as long as we’re tapping truisms for whatever droplets of wisdom they might yield, here’s another one: Hope springs eternal.