Claire Vaye Watkins, Gold Fame Citrus; Mireille Juchau, The World Without Us – TLS
California has turned to desert, its skies have stopped raining, rivers all emptied and aqueducts run dry. This is the premiss of Claire Vaye Watkins’ arresting first novel, Gold Fame Citrus, set in an all too imaginable future where man’s exploitation of the earth is turning back the clock. The blazing sun beats down on a landscape now “primordial, reptilian” from which the wealthy have fled, the poor been evacuated into camps. But there are “hold outs”, skirting the authorities, declining to leave. Inside one house, for instance, long abandoned by its starlet owner, is a young woman wittily adorned in feather headdress, dusty rhinestones and rubber galoshes. Her project for the day is trying on every silk and fur in the house. But then a scavenging prairie dog interrupts her fashion show. Startled, she kicks the air, scaring the wild beast into the library. Her boyfriend reminds her that “projects” are important, but while he is practical, digging the shithole or siphoning gasoline from abandoned cars, she sleeps too much and plays at dressing up. “Babygirl” he calls her, suitably enough, though she’s proud of her many names and incarnations, unaware of how little they’ve offered in the way of self-possession. First she was Baby Dunn, an “adopted and co-opted” poster child for the Bureau of Conservation; then Luz Cortez, ill-used teenage model; and finally Luz Dunn who now, with her boyfriend, survives in the ruins on pilfered food, bartered drugs and Red Cross ration water.
Gold Fame Citrus is a wild and glamorous book conveying all the allure of people improvising and living on the edge, as well as the strange charm of enigmatic landscape. Vaye Watkins was brought up in the Mojave desert (her father had been entangled in Charles Manson’s cult-commune), and as she demonstrated in her short story collection, Battleborn (2012), she is well-versed in the region’s seductive myths – alluded to here in the Hollywood outfits Luz parades about in, and the biographies she reads of men who forged the West by playing God and taming the land. Where she finds herself in these stories is unclear, but that startling image of a wild beast in the library suggests their tradition of rugged individuals overcoming nature is doomed. It also indicates something about the way Vaye Watkins sees her own place in literary tradition. After publishing Battleborn, which was hailed by critics, winning the Dylan Thomas Prize for Fiction, she gave serious thought to Toni Morrison’s question: “Who are you writing for?” In answer, she published an essay, ‘On Pandering’ (2015), admitting she had created the book to impress older white male writers, even though she didn’t admire the work of many of the men she had in mind. “An exercise in self-hazing” she called her behaviour, “a product of working-class madness, the female strain”.
This revelation of false consciousness seems to have provided a springboard for Gold Fame Citrus, in which many of the characters succumb to the worldview of others. Luz, in particular, lacking education, is susceptible to charismatic and demagogic men. Her boyfriend, she thinks, has “prophet eyes”. And when they make an ill-fated getaway, having also “co-opted” a small child, Ig, from a band of neglectful revellers, she finds herself rescued by an actual prophet. A water-diviner and ex-scientist, Levi (his name suggests “priestly”), leads a colony in the desert, populated by mystics, dropouts and refuseniks, camping by the Amargosa dune. As nature mutates, this vast, glittering sand mass becomes more like a sea or spreading glacier, slowly engulfing California.
Similarly preoccupied with questions of ecological disaster is Mireille Juchau’s third novel, The World Without Us, which takes place in the imaginary Bidgalong Valley in New South Wales. Here, people are suffering and impotent in the face of collapsing bee colonies, diseased cattle and polluted lakes – the result of fracking and gas drilling. Many are also haunted by their experience of life in a commune that once perched above the valley in the Ghost Mountains. At the heart of the novel is the Müller family, and at their heart, a dreadful absence, caused by the death from leukemia of the family’s youngest child, Pip (her name, a hint that time is running out). The Müllers each grieve in a different fashion: the father Stefan, a German-Jewish immigrant, drinks too much, is wracked by migraines and worries about his missing bees; his wife Evangeline, traumatized by the fire that ended the commune, now wanders in the Ghost Mountains hoping to recover memories, while the eldest daughter has stopped talking, leaving only the middle child to hold the family together, voicing her sister’s unspoken words to their distracted parents. Where emotions in Vaye Watkins’ tale are exhilaratingly free (Ig, in particular, is reminiscent of Doris Lessing’s disturbing, post-apocalyptic children, at once cutely vulnerable and terrifyingly explosive), in Juchau’s elegantly poised and controlled story, the Müller family are emotionally numb, medication pushing down all unruly feeling to an unspoken “underworld” that lies between them.
Both these novels share preoccupations with earlier fictions (by Lessing, Margaret Atwood, Helen Simpson and Barbara Kingsolver, among others) exploring the fate of women when science is turned against nature, and the alternative ways of living which spring up in response. The colony in Gold Fame Citrus and the commune in The World Without Us have been created in opposition to existing orders, their members evangelizing against the science which has lead to the decimation of the land. Like Levi, the powerful seer running the colony, the commune has its own authoritarian figurehead, called Jack, who controls the faithful. Tellingly, the two prophets use the same method of keeping their followers in line: by impregnating large numbers of women they become quite literalized versions of what Josef Stalin liked to be called: Father of the People.
It’s hard not to read the demise of ideology as well as collapsing ecology as shaping these two fictions: they share a contemporary distrust of power, whoever wields it; ambivalence about the legitimacy of any agency beyond the individual’s; and even their pleasure in language reflects back a suspicion of rhetoric seeking to persuade. In Vaye Watkins’ colony, for instance, a group called The Girls communicate in pseudo-feminist argot: “Cute is an act of erasure. Cute is gynophobia writ large” – while servicing Levi and the other men in a desert harem. Moreover, in both communities, the rejection of poisoning science and advocacy of natural healing leaves women, with their particular biological vulnerability, endangered by lack of contraception, antibiotics and modern medicine. In the same way, the benign practice of sharing becomes something creepily enforced, coercing women into sexual availability, “openness” demanded as an article of faith.
Amid the complexities of emotion and power which these writers probe so intelligently, it is this instrumentalism to which they are both especially alert. Neither Luz nor Evangeline has much in the way of learning, making them easy targets, and the disappearing worlds they inhabit are mirrored in their own lost potential. So there is not much to console in these stories: unmasking the demagogue does not in itself alleviate the problems he warned about. But there are small victories. Having never really had control over her own life, Luz fails at mothering another. She does, however, refuse to allow Ig to be turned, as she once was, into a symbol for the cause. And when the Müller child finally breaks out of her silence, she and Evangeline escape from their claustrophobic valley in search of a different kind of underworld, the Great Barrier Reef, “before it disappeared”.
This review appeared in the TLS as ‘Taming the Land’ on 21.2.2016.