The dystopian novel Gold Fame Citrus has gotten a lot of buzz in recent months. Named one of NPR’s Best Books of 2015 and reviewed favorably in the New York Times’ Sunday Book Review, The Lost Angeles Times and The Washington Post, the book shines as brightly as the white dune sea of the near-future southwestern United States that it describes. Author Claire Vaye Watkins is a writing professor here in Ann Arbor at the University of Michigan, and Gold Fame Citrus is a hit of a debut novel.
The apocalyptic world that Watkins paints so vividly is that of fiction… for now. Drought has struck the southwestern United States. High winds and broiling temperatures have created a rolling “dune sea”, devoid of almost all life, and moving across the country at breakneck speed. A few survivors hold out, among them former model Luz Dunn and her partner, Ray. The two live in an abandoned Hollywood mansion, surviving on rationed cola and whatever else they can find. When they discover a child one day, however, their world—unexpectedly stable despite the destruction around them—turns upside down. What follows is a fascinating look at how humans react in the face of fear and the unknown, when survival is constantly on the line. Deciding to leave California, Ray, Luz, and the baby attempt to cross the dune sea to make it to the eastern United States—overcrowded but still livable.
The setting of Gold Fame Citrus is fascinating in and of itself, but Watkins creates such a brilliant storyline and uses such descriptive language that readers may feel as though they are trekking across the dusty landscape next to Ray and Luz, with the sun beating down upon them, tasting salt and grit on their tongue. “Gold Fame Citrus is a dreamy story with a mystical streak and a core of juvenile irresponsibility that does not go unpunished,” writes Jason Sheehan in his review of the book for NPR. “She's [Watkins] got a knife eye for details, a vicious talent for cutting to the throbbing vein of animal strangeness that scratches inside all of us.” The characters are as intense as the landscape. Despite being in a place that is entirely unfamiliar to us today, the characters and their reactions make sense to readers, if not always in a positive way. “A great pleasure of the book is Watkins’s fearlessness, particularly in giving her characters free rein to be themselves. People who were shiftless and irresponsible before the disaster are shiftless and irresponsible afterward. This particular apocalypse is not an opportunity for redemption, and no one is ennobled by it,” reads the New York Times review of Gold Fame Citrus. “We were dishonest with ourselves and others before the apocalypse, Watkins suggests, and the same will hold true afterward. The world might be irrevocably altered, but we’re still us.”
Watkins is also the author of the short story collection Battleborn.