Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins

"California people are quitters. No offense. It's just you've got restlessness in your blood...Your people came here looking for something better. Gold, fame, citrus. Mirage. They were feckless, yeah? Schemers. That's why no one wants them now. Mojavs."

I was gifted Gold Fame Citrus for Christmas. It's rare that someone gives me a book I didn't request, haven't read, and have never even heard of, so I was intrigued just by its existence in my home. The opening lines convinced me to pick it over my other Christmas books because they were so vivid and funny.
"Punting the prairie dog into the library was a mistake. Luz Dunn knew that now, but it had been a long time since she'd seen a little live thing, and the beast had startled her."
Book One, lasting 109 pages, focuses on Luz Dunn. A conservation propaganda baby, a teenage model, one of the last Mojavs left in the post-water West who hasn't allowed herself to be relocated to a more precipitous place in America. She and her boyfriend Ray live in an abandoned starlet's home, shitting in holes, drinking ration water, grossly overpaying for black market fresh produce, and bemoaning that of all the empty pools in Hollywood, they picked the house with one that can't be turned into a half pipe (it has a bottom made of river rocks instead of smooth concrete). A mysterious little girl enters their life and forces them to start making different kinds of choices. I really really enjoyed the premise and writing and characters of Book One. 

I have often said that shifting point of views is an easy way to win me over as a reader. I am also a fan of multigenre - the slide show in Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad is still one of my favorite non-text things to appear in a  book - but this novel has both not enough and too many Point of Views and Genres. 

POV changes several times because multiple characters are believed dead and then reappear. Rather than feeling like I'm purposefully being taken on a journey through different perspectives in order to show me more about the world and characters being developed, it seems like a ploy because the author didn't know how to move plot without the 'deaths' and the deaths necessitated a different perspective (along with the multiple miraculous survivals).

There are several genres: 20 pages of past-tense history recounted in a distant narrative voice that isn't repeated elsewhere, a 6 page survey about a character on a Top Secret mission, a psychiatric evaluation about a character that comes from a time outside of the setting of the story, an anecdote about the mole people who work in the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository. At three different points  - each about 100 pages apart - there are chorus-like sections with short quotes from a variety of characters who are all responding to a single situation. Again, these don't feel like they are developing anything for the novel and are more distracting than they are illuminating. 

The one exception is an illustrated book with descriptions of different creatures that live in the Amargosa Dune Sea (the giant sand dune that has taken over the south west) - this was lovely on its own and set up a plot point about a character that became evident as the novel went on. 
Easily identifiable by its enormous ears, which grow four to five times larger than the rabbit's body and serve as a cooling system in the extreme heat of the dune sea.  

I really wanted to like Gold Citrus Fame. Watkins is a new young author who runs a cool free writing workshop in my own Battleborn state, the protagonist of her novel is a Hispanic female, the setting is the desert that I love so much, the Amargosa Opera House and Pappy and Harriet's steakhouse are two physical places that I adore which have cute cameo appearances, the writing is oftentimes funny, engaging, and beautiful, but the novel falls short. Her short story collection, Battleborn, is fairly well acclaimed, and many people liked the novel, but it felt like she didn't quite know how to handle the full scale and scope of a novel. I am incapable of even trying, so I applaud her efforts, but I still wouldn't recommend this book.

I do, however, intend to read Battleborn. This does feel reminiscent of my experience with Karen Russell, though. I read Swamplandia!  because of what people said about her short stories, and was disappointed. Then I read Vampires in the Lemon Grove and was still disappointed. People still say such good things about St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves that I still think about picking it up in spite of the fact that I just can't seem to get into Karen Russell.  


Christopher said...

I want to read this one when it comes out in paperback.

Brittany said...

I would be very curious to read another review. Randy has no plans to read it since I didn't like it.

I'm also interested in this new genre of post-water books. The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi was on my To Read because I enjoyed his YA post-global-warming novel Shipbreaker SO MUCH, but I'm wondering if some of the failings I found in her book are just failings of the genre. How does an author end a book that takes place in a desolate world that doesn't sustain any human life? You can kill people or save them, but both are risky endings, which makes me wonder what would a satisfying ending look like?

Jenn Schicker said...

I recommend you still read The Water Knife. I devoured it a few months ago; I found it very engaging. Partially because it features this lovely southwestern desert which I love, but also because I found the characters interesting. However, I also loved Vampires in the Lemon Grove...