Claire Vaye Watkins goes on an autofictional odyssey out West in her latest
In her 2015 viral essay "On Pandering," Claire Vaye Watkins confessed her inability to write "anything of consequence" since the birth of her daughter. "I don't wander in the desert much anymore," the author of American West collection Battleborn wrote. "I spend my days with a baby and that, patriarchy says, is not the stuff of art." That Watkins wrote Battleborn, her debut, as a self-described pander to white male readership amplifies her fears that she has lost her artist's gaze entirely: Her attempt at a novel stalled out at a short story in the form of a postpartum depression questionnaire that felt "quaint" and "domestic."
Six years later, her new novel I Love You but I've Chosen Darkness sees Watkins' alter-ego narrator — also named Claire Vaye Watkins — answer the same questionnaire in darkly funny fashion. But rather than accept the PPD diagnosis, she recognizes the injustice of making mother and woman and artist and lover into mutually exclusive identities. So Claire takes a page from many a man in literature and leaves her husband and newborn — at first briefly, for a book reading in her hometown of Reno, Nevada. But then she takes an extended leave from her life, at first resisting the biological pull to go back east in favor of breaking the rules of her open marriage — but eventually allowing herself some familial closure by revisiting towns she once swore never to set foot in again. This surreal odyssey, propelled by maternal rage, may at times be alienating even to female readers, but it is unequivocally triumphant to witness Watkins writing for herself.
This surreal odyssey, propelled by maternal rage, may at times be alienating even to female readers, but it is unequivocally triumphant to witness Watkins writing for herself.
While this is Watkins' second novel after her devastating climate-change dystopia Gold Fame Citrus, in truth it's a follow-up to Battleborn. The first story, "Ghosts, Cowboys," tapped into the dark bloodline of Watkins' family tree: Her father Paul Watkins was Charles Manson's right-hand man, not involved with the Helter Skelter murders, but certainly with procuring girls for the Family — a grisly legacy that gets revisited in greater detail in Darkness. The novel's title comes from an eponymous piece — pulled from her high school love Jesse's tattooed collarbones and the ink's post-punk revival band namesake — originally published in Granta in 2017. Watkins is no stranger to autofiction, praising how the genre rejects "the idea that you have to be either one or the other."
I Love You but I've Chosen Darkness is fiction in the way that Patricia Lockwood's No One is Talking About This is fiction: Depicting actual events in the author's life until a particular branching point, in which she renders autobiographical details as malleable as any other literary material, treading alternate paths related to a real-life loss of life and/or identity. Though Lockwood's telling seems more metaphorical; despite "the portal" of her book being a stand-in for viral Twitter fame, it takes extensive Googling to separate the strands of fiction from fact. With Watkins, the fictional Claire's postpartum vagina dentata sharply delineates between the real and the surreal.
As the book bores deeper into the past, Claire increasingly resembles a modern, gender-swapped Odysseus: Presented with multiple opportunities to just board the plane that will deposit her back with her waiting husband and daughter, she instead clings to act-of-God flight delays as excuses to linger out West, despite her seeming abhorrence to revisit such haunted towns. Claire's unfinished business includes confronting an enabler of her dead ex, and a full-circle stay with a commune family-with-a-lowercase-f that nonetheless illuminates what the Manson Family might have offered for her father.
The journey occasionally drags in the portions that come across as too obvious in their excavations. Getting high with her college buddies and pondering how they're the Oregon Trail generation (those who died of digital dysentery before they'd even finished high school) loses its deep significance after multiple conversations. Similarly, the letters from Claire's mother Martha to her cousin, chronicling her teenage loves and newspaper aspirations, start out infused with the titillation of who-likes-who but eventually become so repetitive that it's unclear if that's a commentary on limited teenage perspective or a consequence of too-faithful transcription.
What has more of an impact are Watkins' subtle, deliberate stylistic choices: The Lake Tahoe interlude with Claire's biologist lover, their time together so urgent and of the moment because they can't possibly linger on what she left behind for him, is related in stubbornly hopeful present tense. Martha's letters (which proceed in reverse-chronological order) have no page numbers, lending their sections a timeless quality.
And, again, the supernatural teeth ringing the canal through which Claire gave birth: Her dark glee, cautious explorations, and triumphant control of her new appendages are a thrilling embrace of what makes her monstrous. She is Odysseus, but she is also Scylla and Charybdis, grasping for the wayward war hero and absent father. Yet in bucking even those mythological archetypes, Watkins shows readers — and perhaps proves to herself — that one does not have to choose the lesser of two evils. A woman can want motherhood and the rest of her life, not or.
Natalie Zutter is a Brooklyn-based playwright and pop culture critic whose work has appeared on Tor.com, Den of Geek, Electric Literature, and elsewhere. Find her on Twitter @nataliezutter.
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