The Premise: In a weird, post-apocalyptic-looking, drought-stricken California, Luz and Ray are just about surviving by scavenging and squatting in an starlet’s mansion when they find themselves caring for a little girl and everything changes. Suddenly desperate to move on and find safety, they set out for a better life and things get really weird.
Thoughts: I’d had this on my shelves since receiving it as a Christmas present in 2015, and read it as part of my drive to actually read all the books I have acquired in recent years rather than just treating them as papery ornaments. To start with, I found myself wishing I’d left it where it was; rather than the panic and carnage I expect when I choose something set in the aftermath of a massive environmental disaster, the first few chapters seem to deal with the ennui of the end of the world. Luz hangs around her adopted home, trying on the starlet’s dresses and messing around with prairie dogs, while her boyfriend, Ray, tries to turn the swimming pool into a skate park. Initially, I found the writing, in its dreamlike style, quite difficult to get into; it felt too unreal to get into, like I was literally watching someone’s dream. Soon, however, I began to appreciate Claire Vaye Watkins’ style as rather beautiful; while it’s sometimes hard to tell what’s “real” within the context of the story, I found this immersive rather than alienating, almost as if I too was suffering from dehydration and heatstroke and it was messing with my head. I don’t know what it says about me that this is what made me enjoy the book…
The characters of Gold Fame Citrus are all quite difficult to like; Luz is an impetuous child in a woman’s body, while everyone she meets seems deeply sinister. It’s a characterisation device I recognise from every post-apocalyptic book, film or TV show ever; from The Walking Dead, to Adrian Barnes’ Nod, to Meg Elison’s The Book of th Unnamed Midwife, if there’s one thing we learn from these stories, it’s that trust of other humans is the first thing you have to cast aside at the end of the world. I’ll be fine; I distrust everyone anyway. Having set out for pastures (or, more accurately, sand dunes) new, Luz and Ray encounter some incredibly weird characters, and the cultish feel of the latter part of the book is unsettling (not least because of the reasonably graphic and peculiar sex scenes, which I would like to have zapped from my brain, please). The characterisation is clever though; often in these kinds of stories, you want to shout at the protagonist, “OBVIOUSLY YOU CAN’T TRUST THIS DUDE” but the creepiness of Vaye Watkins’ characters is more insidious.
Gold Fame Citrus reminded me of the environmental focus of my beloved Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake and the rest of the Maddaddam trilogy, while the weirdness of the encroaching sand dune gave me flashbacks to Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach trilogy. These are huge compliments to Vaye Watkins; I love those two trilogies. As Luz, Ray and baby Ig travel away from California, with Ray pointing out that the state’s original settlers were after the three things that make up the novel’s title, I also thought of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath; there’s a similar hopelessness as the characters seek a better situation in a world where such a thing seems impossible.
In Conclusion: I found Gold Fame Citrus really interesting, and I don’t mean that in a euphemistic way. It’s quite a challenging read and I don’t suppose the style will appeal to everyone, but I thought it was clever and intriguing, because of rather than in spite of its general oddness.