The end of the world has been depicted throughout different genres and modes, but one thing that is central to these narratives is a hero. In dystopian worlds, protagonists follow the hero’s journey. There seems to always be a Katniss Everdeen (Hunger Games) or a Thomas (The Maze Runner), who must gain physical skills as a means of survival, or, there is the protagonist that comes from nothing and must become a hero. The dystopian genre sets its heroes up to make their time in life really count, usually by saving the world.
But what happens to those who do not want to be the hero during the end of times? Claire Vaye Watkins answers that very question with her novel Gold Fame Citrus. When talking about her intentions for this novel in her interview with Kyle McAuley, she states that “I very much didn’t want to write a book that sounded pedantic or preachy, or ringing the alarm bells or wagging fingers. I don’t like to read novels that are trying to teach me a lesson.” Through Watkins’ almost poetic prose, she creates a world that is not too far off from our own and shows realistic characters' reactions to life in a world that is slowly destructing, a slow apocalypse.
Gold Fame Citrus is set in the near future after a ruinous drought hit California and most of the Southwest. This creates a massive sea of dunes called the Amargosa: an ever-growing desert that is slowly taking over the west, and slowly decimating resources. The main characters and lovers, Luz and Ray, are squatting together in a starlet's abandoned mansion in Hollywood. In isolation, they have become each other’s respite. As the novel begins, Luz and Ray have no real purpose or drive beyond basic survival, and they have no plan to leave California anytime soon. This is until Luz decides to capture two-year-old Ig, which then forces them to abandon Los Angeles for the hopeful, lush, and nature-rich eastern states. As they head east and brave the Amargosa, they find that they are unprepared for the challenges that lay ahead of them. In Gold Fame Citrus, a Climate Change Fiction (Cli-Fi) novel, Watkins portrays a relatable female protagonist who allows female readers to learn how to exist through a slow climate apocalypse. Through this relatable female protagonist, readers are able to empathize with an anti-heroine experiencing a slow apocalypse, having relationships for survival’s sake, and mental health challenges.
The current conversation around Gold Fame Citrus is centered around how this novel is a commentary on capitalism and colonialism in the United States. In her analysis of the novel, Jennifer Ladino states that “ In this novel’s weird West, there is no single eschaton, no “act of God” to blame; the dystopian world results from a complex web of human-caused environmental and social disasters. More than that, the guilty parties are identified: they are the settler colonial residents of the United States” (202). Though I agree with this, the true value of reading Gold Fame Citrus relies more on an individual’s connection to the main character Luz, the theory of narrative empathy is a necessary tool to fully analyze this connection.
When thinking of climate change fiction, the main goal for authors is to hopefully incite some sort of social change. The desire for social change is not a new request that genres want out of readers. In the nineteenth century, women authors adopted sentimentalism as a form of emotion-based writing to gain sympathy with readers who were predominantly white-middle-class women, the same demographic of readers of Cli-Fi (Williamson 2). To fully explore and expand the genre of Cli-Fi, I will be using sentimentalism to look at how modern emotional experiences are used during an apocalypse, and I will be calling this climate sentimentalism. Taking inspiration from both Cli-Fi and sentimentalism, climate sentimentalism can be used as a polemic lever for social change because of the strong empathetic reaction a reader can have from their connection with the author’s characters. Suzanne Keen, a narrative theorist, analyzes the ways that readers form empathy with characters through different craft choices an author makes. Keen uses narrative empathy to explain how readers form these connections with a character even when they have a different belief system from the reader. She states in "A Theory of Narrative Empathy:"
Character identification often invites empathy, even when the fictional character and reader differ from one another in all sorts of practical and obvious ways, but empathy for fictional characters appears to require only minimal elements of identity, situation, and feeling, not necessarily complex or realistic characterization (Keen 214).
When reading Gold Fame Citrus, some readers may not relate to Luz, either because they would not make her same choices, or because they do not understand her choices when it comes to her and Ray’s survival. However, as Luz experiences more, and Watkins reveals more about her background, readers can form a connection with Luz and are able to see how they might relate to her. This relatability is seen in Keen’s coined term broadcast strategic empathy, which “calls upon every reader to feel with members of a group, by emphasizing common vulnerabilities and hopes through universalizing representations” (215). When looking at Gold Fame Citrus, Watkins’ portrayal of Luz’s ordinary thoughts around heroism, relationships, and mental health allows viewers to see a realistic and humanistic journey through a slow apocalypse.
The modern emotional moments that Watkins makes throughout Luz’s character arc allow readers to recognize a representation of modern choices within Luz’s decisions, or at least understand her decisions, whether they are relatable or not. Though some readers respond to Luz’s choices by thinking that they would step into that heroic role and take it upon themselves to learn the survival skills needed during an apocalypse, others have a more realistic mindset by recognizing that they are not made/meant for those strenuous skills, and decide to live as they are or even choose their own way to die. The choices of the latter allow the reader to see their choices within Luz giving them a representation of what it is like to live through an apocalypse as a person who rejects the heroic ideology.
This connection becomes important because as society stays in a stagnant place of reform literature is a tool that can help identify and promote social change. In a day and age where women’s rights are regressing, it is important to acknowledge that the genre of sentimentalism was created by women for women to actively promote suffrage. Though some traditional sentimentalists might not think that this term applies to Gold Fame Citrus, because they might think that this approach could be seen as psychological realism, both of these terms can overlap while giving each other the space to uphold their intended meanings to create a new definition. Watkins creates a space that allows Cli-Fi to expand the current outdated thoughts on sentimentalism because classic sentimentalism deals with the intense emotions of a character, like sadness or love, but as an expansion of the genre to include modern emotions that we now have terms and understandings of these psychological concepts.
With the creation of this term by connecting Cli-Fi to sentimentalism, the pessimistic writers of Cli-Fi can see that their genre is not dead and has a purpose: educating and telling the stories of those affected by climate change showing livable experiences that everyday readers can see themselves represented in. Through representation, Watkins is able to foster empathy, which allows the readers to fully connect to the text, and, therefore, create an empathic response to climate change. One of the ways an author can foster this sense of empathy is through “imitation of the sentimental genre in order to work within the dominant ideology to make social reform slowly, instead of delving into a radical show of equality which would likely have been rejected by readers” (Bouska 26). Harriet Beecher Stowe uses the imitation of sentimentalism to make social reform within the dominant ideology of race in Uncle Tom’s Cabin when she connects white readers to the experience of slaves through their known shared experience of familial love. This is what Watkins does in Gold Fame Citrus when she creates a world that is slightly different than our own, which creates a space where readers can find familiarities in destitute California.
Watkins creates a narrative that fosters empathy by connecting the reader to a livable experience during an apocalypse by showing our real-world experiences, like when she shows what it feels like to lose identity or to be used for superficial reasons as Luz does. These are real emotions that real people feel, and readers can connect to not the overt emotions that are typical in sentimentalism. A typical troupe of sentimentalism is when people cry; a clear example of this is when Luz, out of fear, punts the prairie dog into the library and she has Ray “deal” with it. As he kills the prairie dog, Luz is reminded that Ray used to kill people when he was in the army. This triggers a strong emotional response which readers can see when Luz turned around and lurched up the stairs. She did not want to be around when he returned. Halfway up, she tripped. The floating stairs had always unnerved Luz and now they enraged her. She kicked the leaden galoshes from her feet down to the living room with some effort, staggered barefoot to the darkened bedroom, peeled off the suddenly chafing mermaid gown, climbed into the massive unmade bed, and wept in the sandy nest of it. She wept briefly for the creature, and then at great length for all her selves in reverse (Watkins 10).
In this scene, Luz succumbs to her emotions for the creature and shows that she has a heart. Because Luz shows her emotions for a being outside of herself, this scene demonstrates classic sentimentalism. However, this scene also shows a more modern sense of sentimentalism when Luz weeps for “all her selves in reverse” because she is facing her past trauma of being used as a child throughout her childhood as a mascot for climate change, and also being sexually abused as a model. In moments where Luz reflects on her trauma is where Cli-Fi can help and expand the genre of sentimentalism.
In most climate change novels, the big question that authors ask readers is “how are you going to spend your remaining time on earth?” This makes readers in modern days think about the climate crisis that we are experiencing. This has readers sitting and waiting for serious consequences, which shape individual decisions on what they consider to be an epoch signaling the end of the world as we know it. In Mcmurry’s work, he states that: “perhaps this is another reason why it is difficult for us to entertain the notion that we are already moving through the apocalypse: to admit to such a thing would be to drain the “threat of doom” of its potency” (McMurry). This notion that readers of apocalyptic novels are unable to accept that we are all living through the slow apocalypse that McMurry details is why Watkins created Gold Fame Citrus. Luz's journey creates a relatable experience in Gold Fame Citrus, which allows female readers to learn how to die through a slow apocalypse. By having a relatable protagonist experience ordinary thoughts and emotions, readers are able to see themselves in the novel, which creates an empathic relationship between the reader and the character. This story creates a space to represent those who do not choose to be the hero.
Bouska, Marissa. “Working within the System: The Sentimental Tropes of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin Imitated in Catharine Maria Se.” Midwest Journal Of Undergraduate Research, no. 8, 2017, pp. 22–40.
Keen, Suzanne. “A Theory of Narrative Empathy.” Narrative, vol. 14, no. 3, 2006, pp. 207–236., https://doi.org/10.1353/nar.2006.0015.
Ladino, Jennifer K. “Pre-Apocalypse Now: Gold Fame Citrus as Weird Western Cli-Fi.” Western American Literature, vol. 56, no. 3-4, 2021, pp. 199–214., https://doi.org/10.1353/wal.2021.0036.
Mcauley, Kyle. “‘INTERROGATING THE MYTH OF THE AMERICAN WEST’: AN INTERVIEW WITH CLAIRE VAYE WATKINS.” Vol.1 Brooklyn, 28 Sept. 2015, http://vol1brooklyn.com/2015/09/28/interrogating-the-myth-of-the-american-west-an-interview-with-claire-vaye-watkins/. Accessed 9 Dec. 2022.
McMurry, Andrew. "The Slow Apocalypse: A Gradualistic Theory of the World's Demise." Postmodern Culture, vol. 6 no. 3, 1996. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/pmc.1996.0018.
Watkins, Claire Vaye. Gold Fame Citrus. Riverrun, 2017.
Williamson, Jennifer A.. Twentieth-Century Sentimentalism: Narrative Appropriation in American Literature, Rutgers University Press, 2013. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/uidaho/detail.action?docID=1576557.dit ex velit, vel aliquam sem tempor eu. Pellentesque sem tortor, elementum et nisi sed, convallis pharetra lorem. Aenean rhoncus rhoncus ex, in dictum massa dictum et. Morbi at nisl fermentum, condimentum tortor a, laoreet leo. Curabitur laoreet diam a metus tincidunt, sed dapibus orci venenatis.