Claire Vaye Watkins, Gold Fame Citrus, Riverhead Books, 2016.
This is the kind of book I want to teach, because it is at once so intensely good and so interestingly flawed. A book that stays with me, with a slightly bitter taste.
What did I love about it? It is so wildly inventive. It retools our topography of the land, making the Southwest/Mountain West into a living entity, putting pressure on our human adaptability and our narratives around how the land evolves, with or without our influence. The language in this book is amazing: the lyric strangeness and unorthodox parts of speech. As someone who wants to integrate the lyric into a kind of realism, it’s really after my own heart. I had the feeling that Claire Vaye Watkins was super-focused on great sentences and lush imagery all the way to the last page. As someone trying to finish a novel, I’m recognizing right now how difficult and time-consuming it is to capture that intensity throughout the book.
And yet…I feel a deep tension in the book between something like weirdness and craft-based conformity. The book is at its best, imho, when it’s weird. The back story of Luz (which is sporadically deployed), some of the chapter structures (a Lincoln in the Bardo-like collective dialogue, a bestiary of alternate creatures) are amazing, and I want more of them. The problem: they feel incidental to the book, pretty bells and whistles, because they don’t fully integrate into plot development and character arc. That, to me, is where the book breaks down, in the tension between the normative conventions of the novel and the innovative worldbuilding, structure, and language. When reading, I often had the feeling that the writer felt pressure to really anchor the novel within traditional craft structures, that, in the end, didn’t really hold up. The momentum of the plot breaks down once Ray returns, the psychological arc of the characters is forced, with a different, more direct tonality. And while the protagonist is a woman, she is tethered to various men, who seem to hold power over her in ways that, while not regressive, still feel like old configurations. Perhaps that’s one of the points here, one shown by zombie shows and other post-apocalyptic media: that old structures eventually crumble in the face of new situations. But if so, then the book is restating, in albeit super-interesting ways, how this fall takes place, when I’d rather see (the book allows us to imagine) alternate possibilities. In this light, it’s a little sad when the end of the book arguably taps into old tropes of female agency, providing a symbolic ending that wraps things up, but doesn’t end well for Luz.
I can’t help but think: what if this book resisted foregrounding the psychological arcs, instead thinking of character as flatter, secondary to the landscape? What if the book refused the ever-intensifying set of explosive plot points? What if – this is Anne’s reading – the book let the earth, the land, the ecosystem occupy its center, rather than the individual humans? The radical ending, here, is not Levi’s large-scale fight that Watkins (I think correctly) refused or the possibly regressive one she embraced (I won’t give it away). Instead, perhaps, the radical ending is the quiet one, involving the long-term formation of new family structures and kinship bonds generated by the exigencies of the land.
To be clear: this book is great. I didn’t want it to end, in part because there’s so much going on in this wonderful world, in each sentence. The plot in the first two-thirds has a real drive to it, and everything feels a bit like a materialization of Burning Man, in an actually burning world. Wonderful, thought-provoking stuff.