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Romance in the California Drought

Claire Vaye Watkins’s characters shack up in the rubble of the apocalypse

Sandy Huffaker / Getty Images News

Claire Vaye Watkins’s first novel, Gold Fame Citrus, contains quite a few believable projections about a nearish-future California: dehydration, sunstroke, plant life sucked of moisture and nearly fossilized in the canyons surrounding Los Angeles. Perhaps the most convincing thing about the world she’s created, though, is what they say about the state Back East, in “all those moist and rich-soiled places” to which most former Californians have been evacuated since a monstrous, roaming sand dune swallowed the majority of the Golden State. 

In Vaye Watkins’s book, as in life, the rest of America looks to California to populate its imagination with outlaws and mystics—or to prove a point about the fringey-ness of its political enemies. Whatever might remain out West, she writes, is said on the Left to be inhabited by survivalists and Libertarian freaks; the Right paints them as Burners, lesbians, “wispy vegans.” Young professionals rumor them to be “refugees of the bourgeois,” idealistic academics seduced by a vast and uncharted wilderness, while “underclass iterations have the colony an assemblage of shrewd swindlers, charlatans, and snake oil salesmen.” For all that’s been damaged in Vaye Watkins’s dusty, post-apocalyptic world, the elasticity of California’s public profile—and the stubborn, mystical affection its remaining citizens have for it—hasn’t changed a bit.

The particular Californians the novel follows, a couple, are Angelenos in a recognizable mold: Luz, a model who never quite made it, and Ray, a Midwestern transplant who talks about surfing the way Scientologists preach self-actualization. The pair, having declined to evacuate the state (now there’s some guileless optimism for you) have left L.A. to camp out in an abandoned mansion in the canyon.

They play dress-up: Luz with the couture left by the previous tenant; Ray in a handyman’s tool belt. In the vacant stretches of time between trips to drug-fueled bonfires on the beach and halfhearted expeditions to the surrounding mountains, they try with bored desperation to find projects to keep them occupied. The rhythms of their life in the beginning of the book—sex, naps, John Muir biographies, building a half-pipe in a dried-up swimming pool—would resemble the lackadaisical occupations of Los Angeles’ blasé upper class if it weren’t for all the air-dropped ration crackers they’re munching. Shacking up in the rubble of a regional apocalypse, it turns out, can be existentially trying. But when Ray and Luz stumble upon a child early in the novel they, as so many have before them, find in caring for a tiny defenseless human a convincing plot arc. 

Gold Fame Citrus is a well-timed addition to the vast canon of stories about Southern California’s capacity for menace and ruin. Arguably, almost every story told about the area contains at least a small suggestion of the End Times, considering how foolish the infrastructure we’ve built there now appears—and how that reality sits next to the century-long promotion of SoCal as a land of sunshine and wealth. Mike Davis, in his dense and controversial Marxist treatment of L.A.’s history, City of Quartz, claimed the city’s mythology is totalizing: on the national stage, it’s nearly always cast as either a sunshiny utopia or a noir-ish site of disaster. Nearly a decade after that book was first published, popular renditions of the city continue to portray it squarely in terms of that dichotomy. In Spike Jonze’s Her, L.A. is as frictionless and clean as an ambitious architectural rendering; the Jake Gyllenhaal-driven Nightcrawler peers into the same violent and sweaty metropolitan underbelly that’s been we’ve seen since, say, Chinatown.

All of which is to say: California makes for great cinema and great cinematic passages. Vaye Watkins certainly knows this. When something has to catch fire, it’s always more satisfying if what burns was once beautiful and a little naive. It’s what helped make Joan Didion the state’s official white girl; it’s probably why we see so many photographs documenting the drought in California—all those frivolous oases of swimming pools and palms enclosed by barren desert—when the water crisis in other parts of America is far worse.

Climate change science fiction certainly isn’t a new genre, but it’s a particularly effective one to write in 2015. These days, the Californian apocalypse narrative is incredibly potent: How many people read the most recent Mad Max movie in terms of the state’s water crisis? Even NASA’s water cycle scientist went on the air earlier this year to discuss Fury Road’s legitimacy as a prediction of a California to come. It’s just this kind of slow-burn apocalypse Vaye Watkins is writing: the kind in which the end comes slowly, as it already has, and then all at once.

Raised primarily in the Mojave desert, Vaye-Watkins is at her most vivid when she takes the role of anthropologist, tracing the residual effects of the desert that swallowed the state. She nails, with a thoroughness edging on cynicism, the human interest stories churned out by journalists visiting the desert’s last stoic and doomed townships; the blog post written by an investment-banker-turned-cowboy before he defects to chase a sand-blasted wasteland; the waves of enterprising research assistants sent to the superdune before funding dried up.

She also writes the husk of California the way it would be experienced by people who remembered, if not the area’s actual lushness, the films that were made about it. L.A. after The End is appropriately tarnished, featuring “groves of decorative bamboo gone to husks” and “wire skeletons of dissolved paper lanterns.” Her characters buy it all, too. Early in the book a distinctly pouty Luz reflects on what she thought she would find north of Los Angeles: basically, ruin porn, with all the vine-strangled decadence that term conjures, an expectation that’s exceedingly silly considering there doesn’t appear to have been rainfall in the West since she was a child.

Luz and Ray, a Doomsday prepper’s worst nightmare, are absolutely confounded by the way nature has reorganized itself around them, and ill-suited to survive in this new world. Luz, in particular, strikes one as the first to go in a horror movie, never mind a full-blown apocalypse. Much later in the book, when Ray marches through the desert alone, hallucinating for lack of water and daring himself not to die, his internal monologue runs, incredibly, “If I may, sand dune, you are not going to kill me … I am a young white man in America and we typically do quite well here.” Which, in the America Gold Fame Citrus describes, isn’t true at all.

Ray’s difficulty adjusting to the new hierarchy—the one in which nature conquers even the once-vaunted white boy—is reminiscent of the struggles of another couple in another recent book about the slow Californian apocalypse. Edan Luepucki’s California: A Novel, which came out around this time last year, hedges a little closer to genre fiction, but the privileged cluelessness of its characters comes from a similar place. In the novel, a depressed economy and a series of catastrophic natural events have functionally dissolved any centralized government and, predictably, driven the wealthy into suburban, gated communities. The book opens with the couple in question, Cal and Frida, having already timidly abandoned a dangerous, resource-starved Los Angeles for an unnamed wilderness, tending a small subsistence garden and living in a shack they’ve discovered. For Frida and Cal, the comforts of civilization are psychically closer: they wistfully remember the internet, which is now a luxury only the superrich can afford. Frida literally dreams of lattes.

If one of the great romantic clichés is waking up to find you don’t recognize your relationship, imagine the awkwardness an apocalypse might visit. It’s one of the anxieties central to California, and though less pronounced in Gold Fame Citrus, still undeniably present. Cal and Frida, who eventually end up with child despite appearing in the book’s first pages to be completely apathetic about—or even opposed to—the idea of bringing kids into the world they inhabit, are affectionate towards each other but nonetheless dazed to find their urban life, and all the rituals of their partnership, supplanted by utilitarian necessities. You need to be a particularly romantic sort of person not to notice when in place of a night at the wine bar you find yourself with a tattered sleeping bag trying to remember how soap gets made.

Ray and Luz, too, though their entanglement began after civilization disintegrated in earnest, default to the most unimaginative of gender roles. Luz calls Ray her “Woodsman.” Cal hunts while Frida gathers. In the absence of the comforts nature has wrestled from them, both novels’ characters enact what at times feels like a half-remembered approximation of a made-for-TV pioneer narrative. Frida refers to a handful of men in her book as the sort who, before razors died out, “wore beards as if they’d ever gone camping.” It isn’t hard to picture most of the characters in these books enjoying, say, cabin porn or urban gardening before their beloved state turned on them.  

These books bear little resemblance to earlier, genre-defining dystopias set in California like Blade Runner and Parable of the Sower, works in which the evil characters evade is the frantic, covetous violence humans inflict on each other. They tended to warn not of the natural world but of the inherent evil of the starving mob, the oppressive policies of the state that are incubated in its citizens after said state is gone. But those stories also had heroes, of which there are none in California and Gold Fame Citrus. Here, the civilization we’ve mapped onto the earth hasn’t ruined us or killed god or sullied our souls; it has simply rendered most of us useless, and probably a little too stupid to survive. These are climate-inflected science fictions that don’t anthropomorphize the natural world—no one is getting swallowed up by a gaping rift in the San Andreas fault—but let the characters do it on their own accord, because they have to. We tell ourselves stories in order to live, indeed.

There’s a squeamishness to reading Cal and Luz and Frida and Ray spinning tales and finding symbols to make sense of the wide and dangerous wilderness they inhabit. In finding them, they are forced to act out the misguided fantasies of people who access their circumstances through the funny transposition of myth onto reality. These Californian apocalypses are soft, and rather than tell us morality tales, they pose questions: What will the deskilled and arrogant among us remember when it’s time to flee, or stay? What stories would we be forced to tell ourselves? If we’re in California, probably the same sorts of fictions we tell ourselves now, but without the special effects. As one character says in Gold Fame Citrus, it was probably a good thing the superdune came and entombed them there, in any case. “A little agony is just what this place needed,” she says. It was getting to be time to “reintroduce hardship into the regional narrative.”