This is another post-apocalyptic dystopia set in the parched and sere west, where the water has dried up and much of the earth turned to sand, and where survival is dicey at best, not least because many people have turned as savage as the environment.
This book is similar in many ways to The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi, which I thought was bleak, but this one manages to be even more of a downer. It reminded me too of Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, both in its artsy-ness and in the surreal tone that at times seems to take precedence over the story itself. I also saw a resemblance to the quirky as well as horrific aspects of Swamplandia.
The main character is Luz Dunn, who together with her boyfriend Ray Hollis is trying to eke out an existence in the abandoned Los Angeles mansion of a former movie star, under the “ever-beaming, ever-heating, ever-evaporating sun.” Los Angeles used to be a land of “gold, fame, and citrus,” but those times ended when the water ran out.
Luz and Ray were living in what should have been a dream house, but instead:
“Nature had refused to offer herself to them. The water, the green, the mammalian, the tropical, the semitropical, the leafy, the verdant, the motherloving citrus, all of it was denied them and had been denied them so long that with each day, each project, it became more and more impossible to conceive of a time when it had not been denied them. The prospect of Mother Nature opening her legs and inviting Los Angeles back into her ripeness was, like the disks of water shimmering in the last foothill reservoirs patrolled by the National Guard, evaporating daily.”
Their lives change radically yet again when they take charge of a sort-of abandoned little girl, who identifies herself as Ig. They know they must leave the area, in case Ig’s drug-addled keepers come to take her away, and so they set out across the desert, to disastrous effect.
They encounter not only the now “quotidian” dangers, such as ever-present thirst, the desiccated landscape with its scorpions, snakes, and poisonous spiders, the ever-growing encroachment of the sand upon livable habitats, and the increasingly lawless government.
Like in Station Eleven, there is also a sinister, influential itinerant preacher who capitalizes upon the fear and desperation of people, and who uses those people to nefarious ends. He channels their hopelessness and regrets into a weapon more immediately dangerous than the ones he claims the government wants to use on them.
The question is whether Luz, Ray, and Ig can make it out of this living hell alive and mentally intact, and if it would even be worth it if they could.
Discussion: The format of the book morphs like the sand dunes that undergo periodic “sandalanches”: sometimes it is straight narrative, and sometimes dialogue, as in a play. A primer on the “neo-fauna” of the dunes, complete with illustrations, is in the middle of the book. In one instance, two different and competing strands of the narrative are juxtaposed in vertical columns along several pages.
Evaluation: This is probably the fourth or fifth book I’ve read recently that is based on the premise of a future in which global warming, aberrant weather patterns, and drought has returned much of the southwest to a “wild west” of dog-eat-dog competition for survival. And as Ron Charles observed in a mordantly humorous remark in his review of this book for “The Washington Post”:
“Like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Gold Fame Citrus doesn’t spend much time exploring how we arrived at this moonscape. Let’s face it: We know how.”
None of these books paints a pretty picture, but this one is the most grim of those I have read. However, it should be noted that the author has gotten rave reviews for her writing; indeed, that’s why I picked it up. Movie geeks will recognize a few nods to “Chinatown,” both overt and unidentified.
Published by Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House, 2015