Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins: Debunking Motherhood?

Debunking motherhood?
Debunking motherhood?

I discovered Claire Vaye Watkins’ writing at a Literary Deathmatch in Minneapolis last spring. She read from Battleborn, her short story collection. Her first novel, Gold Fame Citrus, arrived to my house just a few weeks ago after I pre-ordered it this summer.

It’s gotten excellent reviews. Vogue’s is good by way of introduction (the core of the plot is the water crisis in the American Southwest; the title a trio of promises bringing people to California generations ago) and includes a conversation with the author. The LA Times calls it “an urgent, frequently merciless book, as unrelenting as it is brilliant.” The New York Times says “[Watkins’] mode of apocalypse mirrors some of the darker aspects of celebrity,”  suggests that the book takes some structural risks and is frustrating and fascinating at the same time.

The review I really wanted to read is from the but even after I subscribed this was as far as I got–I couldn’t get to the review. (Any help is appreciated.)

October 6th, 2015
By writing Luz as a reluctant maternal figure, Watkins has tapped into the lean but vital tradition of fictional ambivalent mothers.

Luz is the 20-something main female character of the book, Ray is her boyfriend and Ig is the odd little girl they kidnap from her spectacularly disengaged and vulgar custodians. I’m fine with the abduction and I’m also very fine with names like Luz and Ray in this brutally sunny landscape. One of several story-lines in the book is that Luz and Ray fall in love with Ig and want to take her someplace better than the drought-ravaged southwest USA where they find her (and themselves). Luz and Ig are my favorite characters and–forgive me, Guia Cortassa, I’m not actually stealing your idea because I couldn’t read your idea and anyway I suspect you’re not too worried about me–it’s in part because Watkins does allow a mother’s love of a baby to be imperfect.

In a interview about the book, Watkins says that relationships between two people consist, inevitably, of someone who is more, and someone who is less, responsible, mature, reliable, etc. From the start, Luz is painted as the less dependable half of the Luz-Ray duo (although that certainly is challenged as the story unfolds). Luz has been abused, by the celebrity culture of Los Angeles, her mother’s death, her father’s exploitation, and more. One of the ways this comes out is that she wants to keep Luz but she fails the child in ways big and small.

It’s true and I know it but it’s not always what I read. I read passages like this, which took me back 28 years to what is clearly not a Kodak moment but a scene far more common, in every sense of the word: a little chaotic, a little less than pristine, laced with several varieties of worry and fear.

She looked back at Ig, strapped in [the] car seat. The seat was not the right size, maybe, and the child slept with her head rolled down and to the side at such an angle that her neck looked broken. Wisps of her yellow-white hair had gone lank with perspiration. Dry cereal rings were confettied all over the back seat, one stuck to her bold-flushed cheek. Luz stretched and brushed it off, then touched the back of her hand to the child’s warm, bulbed brow.

The little girl is difficult, too, but in ways I found so familiar for a two-year-old I was totally drawn in to both the child and Luz’s love of /impatience with her.

She was moody, became pensive and enraged without warning. She went berserk at the sight of a plate of saltwater noodles Ray fixed her for lunch, sending up painful-sounding screeches. If they reached for an empty cola can before she had decided she was through with it, she let loose an autistic, unsettling moan, which they made every effort not to hear.

I guess I don’t know much about depictions of ambivalent mothers in fiction (I’d know more if I could get to that Rumpus rerview), but it seems to me stories are made all the more readable by realistic depictions of small children in fiction. I loved the way Ig incessantly, irritatingly asks “What is?” and I love thinking I hear her say it in that tiny voice and I love the way Luz answers. I love this unconventional catalog of her likes that could have been taken from my daughter’s baby book:

...crackers, rocks…questions, her new shoes, the ding the antique phone made when she bashed it with the earpiece, opening and closing the sliding doors, the tool belt…

Here’s my question: is the mother ambivalent, or is the child simply feral, like all children? My hat is off to Watkins for allowing us to consider each.

Following are a few examples of other books I’ll be reading and reviewing in the next several weeks: Kaya Oakes’s The Nones Are All Right and two novels (2nd and 1st, respectively)  from my amazing Loft fellow mentees, Rebecca Kanner’s Esther and Chrissy Kolaya’s Charmed ParticlesOh! And the 4th Neapolitan novel by Elena Ferrante, The Story of the Lost Child. So keep your eyes peeled for some excellent book reviews coming up, right here, this fall.




    1. Thank you very much, Guia, for contacting me. I’ll post the link to Lyz Lenz’s essay as a follow-up on FB and Twitter. I enjoyed the article. Do you think the feral nature of small children is an under-examined, and maybe even somewhat taboo, aspect of the ambivalent mother?

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