A business trip is Claire Vaye Watkins’s ticket to freedom. Leaving behind her successful writing career and teaching position, husband, and baby daughter back in the Midwest, Watkins abandons her return flight home to circle Nevada and California, her native homeland. Free of obligations, she strikes out with a breast pump, her phone, and an old iPod in a tote bag. Watkins rambles with old friends before connecting with a new lover, and, later on, makes a pilgrimage to what remains of her childhood home with her sister. There are drugs, endless detours, and dead ends on this odyssey, which she writes about in her new novel, “I Love You but I’ve Chosen Darkness.”
Yes, for those who may be confused, this isn’t a memoir. Let’s not even call the book autofiction. While some may see this as a device employed mostly by women, Karl Ove Knausgaard and Philip Roth spring first to mind as authors who have inserted themselves within their novels. This creative act allows women to reimagine themselves beyond the constraints of memoir. While reading this funny, deeply searching, and innovative novel, what surfaces is the pursuit of freedom as well as the act of recovering a fractured self. If the contemporary novel serves a social and moral purpose beyond entertainment, perhaps one function would be to engage the reader in a rigorous reimagining of humanity in the face of existential crisis.
In 2012, Watkins set the literary world on fire with her critically acclaimed and award-winning debut collection of stories, “Battleborn.” She was heralded as the new voice of the American West. In 2015, her sophomore work, the novel “Gold Fame Citrus,” tracked a near future ravaged by climate change. Ambitious and bold, the book incorporated fictional nature writing as well a wholly imagined landscape, embracing a fiercely creative approach that grounded the reader in a horrifying new world. Though the praise was not universally positive (the fictional Watkins hilariously notes, “Basically, the critical consensus on my second book is that people really liked my first book”), the novel’s fearlessness left an indelible mark on me. This was a writer willing to risk losing readers wedded to a conventional novel in order to find new and provocative ways to expose the scourge of climate change.
Six years have passed since that second novel and the publication of her 2015 Tin House essay “On Pandering,” which called out misogyny in literary circles and uncovered her own bias to write for white men. The piece sparked strong opinions and forced writers to reckon with their audiences. Between then and now, publishing has made some moves to publicly confront injustice, yet the contemporary novel remains a murky place of contention.
Should the contemporary novel mirror the broad concerns of society, serious regard must be given to the fictional narratives (often quasi-autobiographical) of mothers. Taken on the surface, these novels are transgressive in their very subject matter (excellent examples include Elisa Albert’s “After Birth” and Makenna Goodman’s “The Shame”). Watkins’s structurally textured novel revels in a certain chaos that mimics the inner life of its protagonist, a woman who cannot look away from the panoply of raging interests and influences that surfaced in the wake of childbirth and motherhood.
Early motherhood carries a banner of joy that often conceals the traumatic splintering of identity. Opening the novel with the Ten-Item Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale — which even sleepless mothers can bluff — Watkins lays out a challenge: Do you think you can contain my trauma within a multiple choice test written by a man who has never given birth? This book is laced with childhood letters written by Watkins’s late mother as well as excerpts from her late father’s memoir, which chronicles his experience as a part of Charles Manson’s cult. Suspend disbelief for the appearance of vagina dentata. Watkins plays with the mystery surrounding childbirth and postpartum bodies in order to reveal the ways women become foreign to ourselves, more animal than domestic goddess. Additional biographical similarities, timelines, and geographic and psychological baggage surface throughout the novel. “We are not a subtle people,” she states.
She writes, “the new woman went on fulfilling the public and private obligations of the old, kept promises she herself had not made. People sprouted wings every day.” Throughout her ongoing restlessness, she encounters absurd farms and artist colonies as well as dive bars and desperate homesteads. It’s here that Watkins unearths the generational trauma of her parents and their parents before them, members of a community who sought opportunity in a promised land that was tainted by nuclear testing and unnatural environmental development. Her exodus from domesticity and fascination with the past is embodied by her statement, “I want to be always moving and coming home.”
Readers may find it hard to forgive, much less empathize with, such a contradictory protagonist. But this disarming novel isn’t asking the reader to concentrate on redemption. Instead Watkins makes connections between taboo, shocking, and shameful states of being to create a more honest relationship to humanity and freedom. Throughout the course of the book, Watkins reveals a metaphysical bent to her mother’s more literal moral code: “You won’t see it all if you don’t trespass a little.” This blistering, form-shaping novel may not connect with some, but guess what? It was never meant for everyone in the first place. That’s pretty liberating too.
Lauren LeBlanc is a writer and editor who lives in Chapel Hill, N.C. Follow her on Twitter @lequincampe.
I Love You but I’ve Chosen Darkness
Claire Vaye Watkins
Riverhead, 304 pages, $27