Watkins wrote the essay “On Pandering” for Tin House in 2015. In it, she talks about that “one and only one intense and ceaseless pastime” to which girls devote their lives: “watching boys do stuff.” The endless effort to write, dress and form identities for them, towards them; how giving male voices more authority can bleed over into everything women do; subconsciously holding the art, the writing, the instruction, of men as more real and meaningful than that of women, in terms of what is good, in terms of what we should strive to attain.
Reading this essay alongside Gold Fame Citrus, I was struck by these ideas and how they are dramatized in the character of Luz, and in her actions in response to the gaze of other characters in the novel, mostly men.
From birth, Luz Dunn—christened “Baby Dunn” by the media as part of an ecological conservation PR campaign—is gazed upon. The public gauges the slow-motion environmental train wreck that is the drought and the formation of the Amargosa in light of her life’s milestones—no pools left by the time she is old enough to swim, no green grass when she starts kindergarten. The initial activity she is engaged in when the book begins—her project of trying on clothes—is for the gaze of her love, Ray. The first words we hear from his mouth infantilize her: “Looking good, baby girl!” His objectifying compliment is followed by Luz’s “zing of delight.” And who wouldn’t feel a little thrill? After all, she’s dressed as a mermaid, dew drop diamonds strung around her wrist. But this is a costume, a playtime project. She’s a mermaid in a land without water, a mermaid who cannot swim.
As a model, her pre-apocalypse profession, Luz is under the gaze of the photographers— telling her to objectify herself telling her to objectify herself into a fetishized signifier.. “You know what to do” they tell her, though she doesn’t, she’s just fourteen. The published images of her are larger than life. She is under the gaze of everyone, on a Sunset Boulevard billboard where the photographer sought to feature her freaky teeth.
Throughout the novel, Luz shapes herself under the gaze of three men in particular—all with prophetic eyes—each of whom needs her to be something for them. In a climactic scene, the villain (he who shall remain nameless, no spoilers!) turns a confrontation she had hoped to keep private into a public performance, where he is the director, the puppeteer pulling her strings.
The gazes that Luz is subjected to in Gold Fame Citrus are not the passive gaze into the mirror of another's eyes that Sartre goes on about. Every gaze Luz encounters seeks to define her, to shape her identity according to the beholder’s wants and needs. Tragically, Luz lacks any understanding of an identity apart from one constructed to cater to another’s gaze. She has a desire to care for Ig, the strange infant of a new era, whom she and Ray half-kidnap, half-rescue from a creepy group of degenerates at a rain dance/rave, but Luz literally doesn't know how to begin to be a mother. Another case of “you know what to do,” where she doesn’t know.
On the release of Battleborn, her award-winning short story collection, Watkins spoke of her father, who died when she was young, and how her image and understanding of him come through collected media, much written around his relationship to the Manson family:
Luz is not without a personal history; she is not bereft of facts and knowledge of herself. And she is not without agency—that magical quality that validates a true female protagonist. But she is buffeted by the conflicting needs of those who gaze upon her. She cannot shape herself to all of them at once—though she tries, to her detriment—and so by the end of her heroic journey she has no better sense of who she is. In the swirl of this overwhelming flood of expectations, she is pushed and pulled and finally looses Ig, her would-be daughter, before being cast out of the community where she thought she had found belonging.
In the novel’s last moments, floating on “silty dun water” and saying to Ray, “I have to go, baby,” Luz is still searching for her own identity, and still unable to brace herself against the forces that buffet her.
Mary Gannon, “First: Claire Vaye Watkins’s Battleborn,” Poets & Writers, September/October 2012.
Kyle McCauley, “Interrogating the Myth of the American West: An Interview Witih Claire Vaye Watkins,” Vol 1. Brooklyn, September 28, 2015.
Kathryn Shulz, “The Really Big One,” The New Yorker, July 20, 2015.
Claire Vaye Watkins, Gold Fame Citrus. New York: Riverhead Books, 2015.
Claire Vaye Watkins, “On Pandering”, Tin House, Winter Issue 2015.
Excerpted from "Gold Fame Citrus": Eco-Apocalypse Begets Human Apocalypse w/ co-contributor Mark Springer. To read more please visit FictionUnbound.com