The Short Version: The water has dried up across the West and many have fled California for greener pastures but Luz and her lover Ray have a decent life, squatting in a starlet’s old house and doing the best they can. When a young child comes into their life, however, they decide to set out for someplace better – and end up nearly dying in the new desert, before discovering a new civilization deep in the dunes…
The Review: Climate fiction has never felt so possible as it does in Claire Vaye Watkins’ debut novel. Her first short story collection, Battleborn, was released to great acclaim several years ago – but all eyes have been on this debut novel, to see what she would do. And boy does she knock it out of the park.
Watkins sets her book at an indeterminate point in the future: not so far away, but not tomorrow. Let’s call it “sooner than later” – after all, in a year where the fires and droughts in California have reached scary proportions, it doesn’t take too much imagination to imagine the water table drying up altogether. And she doesn’t just create a scenario and then invent her own rules: there is a real sense of research here, the possibility of this dry future made all the more real by how, well, possible it feels. Desalinization plants built but never even made realistic let alone brought online, wells going dry followed by lakes and rivers too as a population demands more and more of a dwindling resource, a black market for fruit and other simple necessities… you can find articles about the firstlings of these stories online today. It makes for a sense of prophecy about this book, a scary and altogether unfortunate possibility of prophecy.
Structurally, the book feels akin to several other post-mini-apocalypse/climate-dystopic novels that’ve come out in the last few years. In many ways, it reads like a more grounded version of Edan Lepucki’s California (a very good novel that pales in comparison to this exceptional one): a couple who was okay on their own begins to fear when a child is introduced into the equation and sets off for refuge – and while what they find initially appears to be a paradise, an oasis (quite literally in this novel), it hides a far darker reality behind the shadow of its charismatic leader. The third act twists of this novel are not surprising – but they don’t need to be. It’s Watkins’ language and potency that make the reading experience so delightful.
The best way to describe Watkins’ writing is that it contains a violence of language, combined with a dizzying invention and all-too-beating heart. The prose explodes on a word-by-word and larger sentence/paragraph basis. Researchers are “stalking tenure in L.L. Bean”, a falling tree gives the sound of a “crepe-ish rip”, a boy is “impervious to hegemony” – and these are three random examples pulled from opening the book just now. It never quite rises to the level of purple prose, never feels over-ornamented, but instead feels as vital as you might expect from a writer who is describing (and whose home is in the midst of) such an unforgiving part of the country.
Why did we go West, though? Watkins is, from her 21st Century position, refuting the Manifest Destiny ideals of the 19th Century, arguing that people came West for such silly things as give the book its title: gold, fame, citrus. And those things are fleeting, immaterial… and yet they drive us still. Luz, as it turns out, was a baby propaganda tool: Baby Dunn, a child known to the nation as the postergirl for conservation and ecological redemption. She later became a model, still seeking that gold and that fame. She’s unwilling to leave California, even when she gets an evac pass – she hungers for that world, even after the world is gone. Watkins has a lot to say about so much more than climate and ecology – her prophecy is not just about the weather, but about humanity itself.
One of the most delightful surprises in the novel is the willingness to shift form rather unexpectedly. Scenes in the desert featuring various groups are told in a sort of oral history and eagle-eyed readers glancing at the page ends will spot a gray band in the midst of the cream-colored whole – I won’t spoil what’s to be found there, will only say that it feels joyously inventive, calling up a sense of fanciful imagination that I didn’t expect from such an earthy writer. Watkins handles the various voices of the novel quite well, bringing them all into an oddly beautiful chorus of a whole regardless of what form those voices are delivered in.
Rating: 5 out of 5. A potent and all-too-possible future, delivered with an intensity of prose that sparkles like heat in the desert. Although the plot won’t surprise too many people, that plays to the novel’s strengths: the world is the thing and the people in it, not some surprise about how things will develop. Ray and Luz feel like our descendants, even a bit like our nearly-now selves: they are the ones who’ll reap the salted earth we’re sowing today, as California dries out and burns. Ms. Watkins is an author of potent prophecy – and all the reader can do (besides submerging themselves in the beauty of the novel) is hope that her tales remain fictional instead of fear that they may come true.