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Monday, June 13, 2016

Gold Fame Citrus and The Cosette Conundrum

I don't know, maybe it's easier to be lost than found. At least there's energy in lostness. Something to be done. -Claire Vaye Watkins, Gold Fame Citrus 
Welcome to Howie's Book Club, where every post begins with an explanation for why I'm writing it! At the beginning of this weekend your humble narrator hadn't finished a book yet and was thinking it might be time for a little breaky-break. It's the summer, I told myself. And in addition to not taking my shirt off in public roughly as much as I don't during the winter, I thought I could take a little summer vacation. I could, like the sitcoms of my early years, take a hiatus and show some reruns in the regular time slot.

I am not dismissing this as a possibility, by the way. There's a good chance that next week you'll show up for your regularly scheduled Howie's Book Club rant about social justice and instead find an episode of Perfect Strangers, The One Where Balki Learns to Drive a Cab and Learns a Very Special Lesson About Boundaries.

This actually sounds like a pretty sweet deal and I apologize in advance if this is not what happens. We run a seat-of-the-pants operation here at the HBC. Our worldwide headquarters is in a penthouse, that rumor is true, but the owners don't actually know we're there. Like Bernie Sanders after this election cycle, we're ready to disappear at the shortest notice. Invisible, untraceable, like a Bernie Sanders supporter at an actual polling location.

Many Howie's Book Club posts also begin with an apology, so we're really off to a good start here. I'm sorry I'm not Perfect Strangers. I'm sorry I'm not a lot of things. I'm sorry I am some things, too. I'm sorry that when I used to hang out in my friends' basement I would mess around on the drum set while they tried to play video games and only found out years (decades, really) later how much it bothered everyone.

One thing I'm going to try to work on, though, is not being sorry that I write every week. I'm not even going to apologize for telling you all about it, unless I feel bad about it again in which case I definitely will apologize. The reason you're not being amused by the antics of one Balki Bartokomous and one Larry Appleton as Balki's wide-eyed innocence teaches Larry a little something about being human while making us laugh along the way is this video:

Yes, I'm aware that comparing myself to the creators gathered at this conference is, like Scrooge McDuck, pretty rich. And like Unca Scrooge loves swimming in his money, I like swimming in my own self-doubt. Creation is a tricky thing. One creator may spend months hand-crafting an extensive marble maze out of hardwood, or a meticulous metal sculpture, and another might bang out a couple hundred words before going to bed on Sunday and they'll both look at what they did and say, "It's almost good enough."

This may come as a huge surprise, but not a lot of people read this. But some do. I'm always looking for that stranger to validate me. Someone who has no experience and feels no obligation to me as a person to read it and say that it speaks to them. I have this stranger in my mind while I write, and this stranger basically hates me. I also have a voice in my mind of someone whose opinion I value and who I really want to like what I do who also hates it. That's the one who scares me the most. That voice is in me, too, you guys.

The people I don't think about enough are the ones who are nice and great and do read and say nice things to me. And they seem sincere and I believe them. Then I immediately take them for granted. They're the ones, like BrenĂ© says, who tell you “It sucked and it was bad as you thought, but it was brave, and let’s get you cleaned up because you’re going to go back into the arena."

It's liberating to tell a critic, even your inner critic, that you're not interested in feedback right now. (Here's a brief aside where I tell you that I am actually very, very interested in nice feedback, though. Or if you disagree with me and want to talk about it without personal attacks, I love and welcome that too.)

Anyway, I read a book.

There's a point in Claire Vaye Watkin's book Gold Fame Citrus where it veered so hard into crazy town that I thought it would start singing "Butterfly." I almost put it down then. I've got enough here to write a blog, I thought, and then I kept reading. I won't give too much away but in the end I'm glad I did. Mostly.

In Gold Fame Citrus, stop me if you've heard this, there has been a cataclysmic event. Said event has made the book's setting into a wasteland where a handful of people scrape out a living without any of the luxuries and conveniences of modern life. This brings out the best and worst in people and (like Perfect Strangers) teaches us a little bit about ourselves from a very pessimistic perspective. I know. Pretty groundbreaking stuff.

In this case the event is climate change and drought. The location is California, which in a reverse 30s dust-bowl twist, everyone is evacuating. Californians, like the Okies before them, are nicknamed "Mojavs," and they are unwelcome everywhere they go. Their state is dried up and there is a massive dune sea created from all the loose soil no longer held in place by vegetation.

Here we find Luz and her boyfriend Ray kind of eking out an existence in a movie star's abandoned mansion. They're life is kind of shiftless and without a future but they love each other and they're going to figure it out, etc. Then an inciting event happens (as they tend to, thank heavens) that forces the eventual journey. There is a rumored community lying in the middle of the dune desert where a charismatic man has seemingly found the secret to survival in the new world.

Watkins, I found out later, is the daughter of Paul Watkins, who was a chief lieutenant in the Manson Family. Watkins, who got into drugs and dropped out of high school, found Charles Manson and some Family members by accident while looking for a friend. The Wikipedia entry describes this meeting thusly: "After enjoying a candy bar, root beer, marijuana, and a night of group sex, Watkins left." After a falling out which ended in his VW van being burned while he was sleeping in it he testified against other Family members before becoming the founder and president of the Death Valley Chamber of Commerce.

That's pretty interesting, huh? Watkins' book is interesting, too. It has a lot in common with Station Eleven what with its examination of cults and their leaders. As many of these books I've read I'm still kind of a sucker for them, I guess. There are good ideas in here and the writing is compelling.
He would, he realized, find them or spend the rest of his life looking, and this might not take so long. So be it. All he had ever needed, in that desert or this, was some say in how it went, some reassurance that he would go doing something worthwhile. A sappy idea, but not therefore false.
My biggest gripe is the Cosette Conundrum (which is something I hope I have just invented). In Les Miserables, Cosette is the least compelling character of the story, even though the entire fictional world revolves around her. I think you could also call this the Bella Bother. In Twilight (I'm told!) Bella is barely an actor in her own life, instead a force to be acted upon who goes this way or that depending on the events around her. Luz is kind of like this. She's compelling in the sense that she is our narrator, but I don't think she learns very much. Like the fabled community in the dune sea, she is swept around with little control, depending on male characters to determine her path.

This might be a deliberate decision on Watkins' part, as she convincingly explores how one could be beguiled by a charismatic leader, but it's frustrating for me to read. Again, that might be the point. Manson's followers probably weren't Jane Eyres or Hermione Grangers or Katniss Everdeens. Elizabeth Bennet would be too busy killing zombies to get sucked into that Helter Skelter nonsense. Ifemelu would have dissected his BS from a hundred miles away before writing a devastating blog about it.
Alright, I talked myself into it. Gold Fame Citrus, you're (with the caveat that I totally skipped the 3-page long group sex scene ((sans root beer OR candy)) alright.