Margot McGovern reviews Claire Vaye Watkins’ sublime tale of faith, dreams and disillusionment, Gold Fame Citrus.
From space it seems a canyon. Unhealed yet scar-tissue white, a wound yawning latitudinal between the sluice grafts of Los Angeles and the flaking, friable, half-buried hull of Las Vegas. A sutureless gash where the Mojave Desert used to be … The mind lurches vertiginous. The vast bleached gash we once took for chasm protrudes; the formation pops from canyon to mountain. Another optical lurch as strata go shadows, as mountain goes mountains.
Closer and the eyeball swoons again: these mountains move as if alive, pulsing, ebbing, throbbing, their summits squirming, their valleys filling and emptying of themselves. Mountains not mountains. Not rock, or no longer. Once rock. Dead rock. The sloughed-off skin of the Sierra, the Rockies, so on. Sand dunes. Dunes upon dunes. A vast tooth-coloured superdune in the forgotten crook of the wasted West.
Wind and drought have made a wasteland of the American south west. The Amargosa, an uncharted dune sea, moves glacier-like across the landscape, the rocks at its base crushing towns, filling canyons and levelling mountains. The West has reverted to the wild place it was before people came seeking gold, fame, citrus. Most people have been evacuated to the northern and eastern states, but a scattered few—the Mojavs—remain. Drifters. Dreamers. Criminals without a clean ID to secure their passage across the border. Lost souls who feel the tug of the Amargosa’s sublime energy.
Luz and Ray are among the hold outs, an ex-model and a soldier gone AWOL living on ration cola and $200 cans of blueberries in a starlet’s mansion. They keep their desires small until towheaded baby Ig toddles into their life and with pleading eyes demands: ‘More, more, more … Mama, I’ve got so much want in me.’ Like the pioneers before them—the prospectors, runaways, Hollywood hopefuls, immigrants, crims and con artists, the unlikely family leave burned out LA and venture into the sunbaked heart of the wild, wild west, risking death in search of a better life.
Deep in the dead land, ‘rippling’ ahead of the mighty dune sea, the family find a fabled colony led by a man who communes with the Amargosa and divines ephemeral streams. To the colony, Luz and Ig are Madonna and child. Ig in particular is a ‘child of the dune sea’ Special. Sacred. A symbol to hold up before the world.
But what is the Amargosa? A sign of climate change? The soon to be victim of a Government conspiracy? A sublime force sent to cleanse the land? Is it an intelligent, thriving force radiating power or is it a dead thing living large only in the minds of the faithful?
Gold Fame Citrus is a sweeping, sublime story of faith, fortune and divine madness that ventures deep into the Gothic underbelly of the American Dream.
Like the sands of the Amargosa, the narrative shifts and distorts—the facts a shimmering mirage on the horizon, becoming ever more distant as the story moves closer to the blank, unknowable sea at its core. The story of Luz, Ray and Ig fragments as the family splits in the desert, their story increasingly interrupted by interjections from the dune sea colonists, scientific observations from expeditions to the Amargosa’s interior, news items, reports, stories of people and places swept beneath the Amargosa’s ever-shifting sands.
Gold Fame Citrus is peopled with characters who’ve placed their faith in the American Dream, specifically the mythic West where anyone can start over, reinvent themselves and make their fortune. Luz in particular is susceptible to ideals and promises. Again and again she abandons the safe and secure path to chase a mirage of more. On the day she’s set to evacuate LA, she meets Ray—a soldier-turned-surfer with a handsome face—and remains with him in the city. Long after Hollywood falls to ruin, she plays dress-up with a starlet’s wardrobe. Kids herself into a fairy-tale. She grows restless in the love she shares with Ray, with their family of two, and so takes a child. Allows the child’s needs to lure her from the city into the desert—an arid hell-scape of sulphur and brimstone with the Amargosa shimmering blue and beacon-like on the horizon.
It’s a story that charts the blurred space between faith and madness. Do the colonists choose the dune, or does it choose them? Watkins draws her reader into the Amargossa’s sublime thrall only to render it abject through scientific observation. But she never allows it to be quantified. Refuses to offer a satisfying answer. Instead, it looms over the story. Unknowable. Gothic.
No one has circumnavigated the Amargosa, no one has ventured into its interior, and no one has crossed it. Unmanned IMQ-18 Hummingbird drones sent on scouting patterns inevitably encountered a ‘severe electromagnetic anomaly,’ transmitting back only an eerie white throb. Satelite-imaging attempts were similarly frustrated, yielding only ghostly blurs.
Watkins casts a critical eye on America’s complex relationship with faith in all it’s forms. She questions the logic of the great American directive: follow your dreams. And she acknowledges the violence and sacrifice necessary to sustain The Dream: the crushing, annihilating force of grinding rock beneath the Amargosa’s powdery sands.
Gold Fame Citrus is a harsh yet vivid tale well-told. Watkins prose is hard and lyrical, bringing to life a wasteland littered with the detritus of lives chewed up by dreams and delivering terror and beauty in equal measure.
Thank you to the publisher for providing a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.
Gold Fame Citrus is available through Amazon (Kindle), Book Depository and Kobo. It’s out 29 September in the US and 13 October here in Oz.
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