by Claire Vaye Watkins
Ever since California became the land of dreams for Americans with itchy feet, seeking a better life or just looking for a good time, the state has also been the subject of dystopian visions, dark stories that dismantle the dream, and expose the hypocrisy that often underlies the image. Woody Guthrie sang about the "Dough Re Mi"; Mary Austin and John Steinbeck wrote of washed up dreams; and numerous science fiction authors have used California as the springboard for apocalyptic tales. Here, in this 2015 novel, Claire Vaye Watkins convincingly portrays a California that has collapsed beneath a catastrophic drought, all its water dried up and the Southwest's gigantic aquifers finally drained completely dry (see Watkins's acknowledgement of Marc Reisner's 1986 book, Cadillac Desert). The devastation is complete. The population of the Southwest is being evacuated by the government to more verdant parts of the country, but the refugees, like reverse Okies, are funneled into camps, entire populations done to dirt by unwelcoming water-rich natives of the north and east. A few hardy souls, however, have stuck it out in LA. They live on rationed cans of cola and hard-won bottles of water. They reside in the abandoned houses and mansions of a collapsed economy in a dry-as-dust and nearly dead landscape. This kind of devastation has been visited upon Los Angeles before, but this one is steeped in the modern anxieties of global climate change and the exhaustion of our water resources.
And so, we have Luz and Ray, a young couple who live in the abandoned mansion of a Hollywood starlet. She wears the clothes left behind. He builds a skateboard playground in the yard. Luz has a strange history as a symbol of ecological collapse. She is a minor celebrity and a well-paid model, though now largely forgotten. Most of Ray and Luz's lives are taken up with basic survival needs. Ray makes lists for his daily grind, but always includes Luz and always includes water. At the same time, there is a liberated feeling. They have no jobs, no responsibilities beyond the daily acquisition of sustenance. They live on the ruins of the society (see also, The Road by Cormac McCarthy). Once in a while, they join in a beach bonfire party in ruined Venice, and it is there they come across a child, abused and abandoned by her own sub-tribe. That there is a child at all is rare enough in this environment. Luz feels her maternal instincts energized by the baby, and it is through the child that she starts to envision a better life. She convinces Ray to take them to wetter places, to head east with the exodus (though not to the government evacuation centers). What ensues is a perilous journey across the great dune sea that has arisen in the Mojave. It is here that Watkins makes a daring move so early in the novel. She threatens her protagonists with an agonizing death.
Without giving away too much, we have to acknowledge that Luz manages to take part in the subsequent two thirds of the story. There is a Charles Manson-like cultish community living on the verge of the dunes. Luz is beaten and abused by the arid existence she must endure with her adopted nomadic village. She surrenders to the community's charismatic leader in a kind of sexual initiation. And she becomes a deeply passive actor in her own story. Indeed, the tale winds down in a strangely depressive manner. Luz falls victim to her illusions. Her adopted child is allowed to drift away. The community seems to be ejecting her like a splinter. In the end there is little to redeem her. The reader may become frustrated with Luz's surrender to circumstance.
There are pieces to Watkins's puzzle of the near future that don't quite fit together. One can't quite imagine that a nation so steeped in the corporate hunt for profit would so completely abandon a quarter of its territory to chaos and collapse. Corporations would still be out there, milking the remaining populace for what it was worth. And yet, a lot of this may merely be occurring off-stage here. At the same time, the author's timeline is a puzzle. It is hard to imagine such ecological transformation occurring within the relatively short lifetime of her protagonist. One can see the roots of Watkins's story in the climate disasters through which we are already living. Her characters live an extreme version of the worst time you could have at Burning Man. But the author's dark vision is still something terrifyingly plausible. Especially in 2017, the sense of apocalyptic disaster seems to be all around us.
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See Also: [The Three Californias trilogy, by Kim Stanley Robinson] [Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler] [The Ecology of Fear by Mike Davis]