When a Novel Fails …

Gold Fame Citrus

By Claire Vaye Watkins

Sometimes—maybe for you, too often—a novel comes highly recommended with descriptors such as “beautiful debut,” “scorching vision,” “imagining a terrifying future,” and similar. Then you buy it and wonder what the reviewers were talking about, what did you miss, perhaps you are a dunce? No, probably you rely more than you should on reviewers opinions, says us who review books regularly. Case in point: a 2015 debut by short story writer Claire Vaye Watkins, a literary novel with a dystopian disposition. Why do we think it fails?

Well, for starters, let the title be a warning to literary fiction fans who like their writers to make a dollop of sense and to dystopian novel fans who cherish sharp conflict and galvanic plotting: if the title makes little sense, don’t expect the avalanche of words following to clarify things.

Doubtless, Watkins can write evocative descriptions. Unfortunately, in her novel, these become the centerpiece of the entire literary venture. The plot boils down to no more than wandering aimlessly in a desert (yes, it worked in the Bible, but not here), the desert an unwanted gift of from humankind’s reckless disregard of natural resources. Her characters, the wanders, mull much over, but instead of intriguing you and stimulating your own thoughts, they commit a cardinal sin of literature, for which, you will feel them justly condemned to the desert: they bore you to distraction.

And this is a shame, for there lurks within these pages a potentially interesting novel. Less time getting out of L.A., less time baking under the sun, less time waxing on and on about what things look and feel like, more time expanding upon the chaos caused by the drought, perhaps expansion of the mining section and a rant on authoritarianism, a more coherent crystallization of the mad prophet of the desert, and the addition of more consciousness to the desert, an anthropomorphism often hinted at but never realized, perhaps these might have made this a better novel, or at least a more enjoyable one.

As this draft stands, a peek at potential, but a disappointment as published. But, hey, who are we. See for yourself, if you have a library nearby. w/c


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