- "Smoke Follows Beauty":The Femme Fatale and the Logic of Apocalyptic Affiliation in Claire Vaye Watkins's Gold Fame Citrus
Beautiful, ethically compromised women, bedecked in glamourous garments and glittering accessories, make remarkably frequent appearances in apocalyptic narratives, given that the exigencies of an apocalypse would not seem to lend themselves to such attire. Examples range from the doomed women "glisten[ing]" and "sparkling" in their jewels in JOHN AMES MITCHELL'S fascinating 1889 novella The Last American to many more contemporary instances, such as Rita Martinez in PAT FRANK'S Alas, Babylon, Josella Playton in JOHN WYNDHAM'S The Day of the Triffids, Beatrice Dahl in J. G. BALLARD'S The Drowned World, Emily Cartwright in DORIS LESSING'S The Memoirs of a Survivor, April Ulam in GREG BEAR'S Blood Music, Ms. Macy in COLSON WHITEHEAD'S Zone One, and Catherine Case in PAOLO BACIGALUPI'S The Water Knife.1 These conspicuously overdressed women call to mind the Biblical Whore of Babylon, who makes her entrance in chapter 17 of the Book of Revelation, "decked with [End Page 623] gold and precious stones and pearls."2 So too do the other markedly sexual or materialistic women in anglophone fiction who are narratively implicated in apocalypse, a term I use in its contemporary sense of a lethal, society-spanning catastrophe followed by protracted disorder and suffering.3
Together, these stock characters suggest that the Whore of Babylon continues to serve as a punitive archetype that demonizes women and lays the risk of human annihilation at their feet. They appear in texts that implicate female cupidity, carnality, or modernity in apocalyptic destruction, and the disposition of these figures in the aftermath—whether, for instance, they are reformed or sacrificed—determines the degree to which a violated world can be redeemed. In Wyndham's text, for example, Josella renounces her former, sexualized celebrity to embrace a more traditional female role, underscoring the novel's celebration of a post-apocalyptic return to a premodern social order. Ms. Macy's undaunted, imperious efforts to redecorate Zone One in the style of the "urban professional class," on the other hand, ring in the final assault by the zombies that are her implicit alter-egos.4 Attention to such archetypes is overdue by scholars of the apocalyptic genre. Richard Slotkin has famously argued, for instance, that early American writers devised cultural archetypes to help metropolitan Europeans constitute a relationship to the wilderness of the "new world."5 Contemporary authors appear similarly interested in assembling archetypes for readers en route to a new, "new world," made unrecognizable by apocalypse. As we shall see, Claire Vaye Watkins's 2016 novel Gold Fame Citrus suggests that this practice brings its own aesthetic and ideological perils.6
Like most archetypes, the Whore of Babylon has mutated repeatedly in response to specific social formations. Many of the ruinous female characters in apocalyptic fiction are directly informed by one of the Whore's relatively recent phenotypes, the femme fatale.7 This modern icon of female danger preserves a key aspect of the great Whore herself: more often than not, she does not actually kill anyone, much less destroy the world. Instead, the femme fatale has historically induced others—men in particular—to do wrong. Her decadent sensuality and ruthless materialism, which are portrayed as extreme instances of essential feminine traits, corrupt men by activating their own basest instincts, transforming them into weak imitations of her. The femme fatale, then, functions as a [End Page 624] sort of archetype of the mechanism of archetypalism itself, and within the arts, the femme fatale's power has been magnified by the consonance between her ideological and generic operations. The reproduction of images of the femme fatale both within and across the genres of drama, painting, poetry, fiction, commercial illustration, and even dance, performed the operation that those very images of her infectious allure were attempting to portray. As twentieth-century artists began to generate secular visions of human-made apocalypse, the modern, immanent, social source of that catastrophe required an archetype. One was already available for repurposing: the woman who both embodies and enacts the insidious spread of contemporary disaster...