Claire Vaye Watkins's new novel, Gold Fame Citrus, is ecofabulist, futuristic, post-apocalyptic. It transcends genre. It’s part bestiary, part cautionary tale, part omniscient mosaic—occasionally collective, often phantasmagoric. By turns ecstatic and horrific.
The water is gone in the Southwest. The water is so gone that our heroes have agreed to never talk about the water. A sand dune, a sand sea, a moving sand glacier, has swallowed cities and is growing. The rich have abandoned their mansions and their theaters, which become the settings for the best versions of domesticity our heroes can manage. We follow characters who still dwell in the desert they should have left. There’s the grotesquerie expected of tales after Armageddon: death, rot (which, without water, is really just desiccation), displacement, visits to bunkers, supply raids. But this novel never utilizes a tired trope—the ones who can forfeit papers read the I Ching, the looters ride a vacant carousel after their theft. And the sand dune—the Amargosa—is simultaneously a consuming force and a transfixing mystery. After a full page of listing what’s been buried beneath it, we get this:
Watkins’s lists are vertiginous. Yet, this wasteland is still populated, by gardeners and dowsers and sex workers and wet nurses and people with translucent skin despite the UV above, by seekers and vagabonds. Sacajawea and John Muir and poster children for a conservation movement they thought might still work. Holy rollers and soldiers and soothsayers and doomsdayers and conspiracy theorists and nuclear scientists and people born underground and people poisoned by arsenic and people who ski the dune. This novel traces the lineage of those who sought gold, fame, citrus; the descendants of greedy people who quit and those who should have quit but didn’t. And, fantastical creatures live on and in the Amargosa, birds and snakes and insects and mammals whose sped-up evolution has made them sublime: “Flamboyant, vibrant, polychrome, and iridescent.” That’s what Watkins makes of this barren desert.
What happens to those creatures, you cannot predict it. That is true of much of this novel: readers cannot imagine where this book will take them. Gold Fame Citrus is told in three parts, each ending in an astonishing turn you couldn't see coming, but that you later realize you were headed toward the entire time. It’s hard to do that once in a book; I’m not sure I’ve ever seen it accomplished three times.
I’ve been waiting for this book. I’ve been craving a postmodern post-apocalyptic masterpiece that would prove what I preach to my students each semester: that unrealistic fiction leaves reality in order to return us to our lives altered. Flannery O’Connor said, “I’m always irritated by people who imply that writing fiction is an escape from reality. It is a plunge into reality and it is very shocking to the system.” I agree. That doesn’t mean I don’t want to disappear into the fiction I read—it means I want to leave what I know in order to then better know what I am enmeshed in.
This seems to me the primary point of ecofabulism, as opposed to conventional Hollywood zombie narratives and other formulaic dystopian tales. At an AWP 2014 panel in Seattle, panelists Matt Bell, Alexander Lumans, Tessa Mellas, Christian Moody, and E. Lily Yu attempted to define ecofabulism and the goals of the genre: it is art not beholden to veracity, art that does not seek verisimilitude but rather revels in impossibility to show us more clearly what is possible, specifically in regards to ecological catastrophe. While there’s a long history of apocalypse cinema and literature that seeks to explore human nature via disaster, it’s often more interested in spectacle than scrutiny. Gold Fame Citrus is interested in both; it’s fabulous in both senses of the word: extraordinary and not to be believed. The fabulism of the novel points to what we should believe: some parts of the world have less water than they need. Someday, we may have drunk, sprayed, chlorinated, and flushed all of our fresh water. Things we love will have been destroyed, and we will be culpable.
Gold Fame Citrus is a herald of an emerging genre, a bellwether of books to come, a watermark of what artists are capable of as we face climate change. We have plenty of information for how bad it’s going to get, for those who want to read it. We still need scientists—but it’s time for artists to step in, to show us how we might face what might be ahead, the challenges we aren’t yet certain of but can imagine more and more clearly each day.
This novel is set in the future, amid the seventh extinction (instead of the sixth, the one we’re in the middle of right now). I myself am from, and have recently moved back to, a drought-ridden place. In Watkins’s novel, the ponderosa pines of my Northern Arizona have been replaced by ocotillo, and soon, the region might be completely covered in sand. The characters shoulder a doomed fate that we—the readers—are currently avoiding. In the novel, some say drought will purify the people, that hardship will make them all better. And readers will want to believe that, too, as we watch Watkins's characters try to make a life—not just survive, but make family and community—in an inhospitable environment. The names of the three main characters—Luz, Ray, Estrella—suggest vessels of brightness: light, sunbeam, star. But what the people in this novel need most is rain, clouds and darkness, so brilliance is not necessarily a positive. Luz, Ray, and Estrella are bright, vividly illuminated, but they aren’t exclusively good: they are complex, compelling, and flawed, each of them.
The ways Watkins’s writes her characters in Gold Fame Citrus is an extension of what she accomplished in her short story collection, Battleborn. She continues her investigations of characters who are isolated even among companions, the stark and surreal Southwest panorama, and cults of people willing to follow a charismatic madman. Again, Watkins deftly describes her characters’ frustrations with and manipulations of each other, and she accurately captures how they can also meet each other with compassion and grace. As in Battleborn, history is the air her characters breathe. All the things that make Watkins's stories so masterful are on full display here, yet this novel is much more intense texturally. The pressure of destruction has made Watkins’s talents combust.
This book begins with devastation, and what it becomes—vindication, vindictiveness, resurrection, ruination—is transcendent. To experience what this book gives and then takes away takes endurance. It feels like preparation.
ERIN STALCUP’s debut story collection, And Yet It Moves, will be published in Fall 2016. She is currently at work on a pre-apocalyptic ecofabulist novel. Her fiction has appeared in The Kenyon Review, Kenyon Review Online, The Sun, and elsewhere, and her nonfiction has appeared in The Laurel Review, STIR, and BendingGenre.com. Stalcup holds an MFA from the Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. After teaching in universities, community colleges, and prisons in New York City, North Carolina, and Texas, she now teaches creative writing at Northern Arizona University, her alma mater, in her hometown of Flagstaff, Arizona. Stalcup co-founded and co-edits the literary magazine Waxwing.
Gold Fame Citrus. By Claire Vaye Watkins. Riverhead Books, 2015