Against Genre: Thoughts on Gold Fame Citrus, a Novel by Claire Vaye Watkins
Just recently I’ve moved an hour west from the suburbs of Baltimore to the city of Frederick, Maryland. Downtown Frederick is a place of small businesses, of names you don’t often see franchised across the state (except for one killer pizza joint that uses pretzel dough), and one of my personal favorite stops has quickly become the Curious Iguana, our local independent bookstore. I was passing through the Iguana some weeks ago when I noticed Claire Vaye Watkins’s Gold Fame Citrus—of which I had bought a signed first-edition copy, and which I read voraciously in a matter of days—at the top of the store’s Science Fiction display. This gave me pause, at first, and has since begun to bother me, a whining gnat tumbling past my ear whenever I spot the book on my own shelf. Because regardless of—no, truly, by virtue of—its Sci-fi/Speculative elements, in my reading I found Gold Fame Citrus to be nothing short of an impressively Literary work of fiction.Don’t get me wrong: I adore sci-fi, fantasy, and otherwise speculative fiction, and I’m not here to indict the Curious Iguana for its shelving choices. But there seems to me to be a certain preset rule, passed down from On High in the offices/studies/hermit-caves of our white male literati, that sci-fi is often a dirty word, reserved for the constant pop-culture onslaught of re-wrought hero’s journeys. Watkins herself, in a fantastic essay adapted from her lecture at the 2015 Tin House Summer Writers Workshop, argues against writing for those literati, wants instead to break genre- and literary-canon-boundaries and write directly to the women and people of color whom those boundaries are often erected against. I’m here to say that Gold Fame Citrus is a hell of a book, one that succeeds in being as uncategorizable as it is universal.The novel is set in a possible near-future where, after years of man-made climate change and irresponsible government, the American Southwest has turned into a desert wasteland, a dune sea that scientists have dubbed the Amargosa. Much of the Southwest has been evacuated as the dune sea contorts and crawls across the countryside, turning what was once familiar into an ephemeral dreamscape. We open on Luz Dunn and Ray, two stragglers living in a former Hollywood starlet’s California mansion. In the first pages we learn that Luz’s father acted as her modeling agent when she was a child, and that Baby Dunn was the face of the government’s advertising campaign urging water preservation and the eventual evacuation. When Luz and Ray meet a strange child who has never known anything but the cruelty of the Amargosa, they set their sights on the East, on escaping the desert together for a better future.In the Amargosa, Watkins’s imagination and attention to detail shine. She shows us the harsh, undulating mirages of the dunes; a primer of fantastical animals and plants adapting to the shifting sands; a shopping mall, completely untouched in the middle of the desert; the many voices of a caravan town that attempts to master living alongside the ever-changing landscape. We see Luz and the other characters struggle with the dual nature of love—love made of passion and fear, of freedom and control. Luz, herself, battles tremendous tension as she tries simply to live in a place men vie to control even as it is dying. The novel is as fearless in its embrace of its concept as it is masterful in its portrayal of those people left wandering this gorgeous, desolate world.Gold Fame Citrus was named a Best Book of 2015 by NPR, The Atlantic, Kirkus Reviews and so many other organizations, and for great reason. Just as she implores us to do in the above-mentioned essay (linked here again because, seriously, you should read it), Claire Vaye Watkins has crafted a work that defies genre. A work that challenges men to look at themselves and the way their behavior affects the people around them, and a work that assures women that they’re more than the men around them. Buckle up, kids: This isn’t your typical sci-fi romance.