This late in the history of feminism, that theme may sound too familiar, but Watkins’s book sparks the same electric jolt that “The Awakening” must have sent juicing through Kate Chopin’s readers in 1899. Here is a novel to hate and to love, to make you feel simultaneously disgusted and unloosed.
The plot of “I Love You but I’ve Chosen Darkness” is surreal but perhaps no more surreal than pregnancy itself. In that sense, Watkins has merely given full voice to the sudden disorientation of motherhood, which is so often muffled beneath a crocheted bunny blanket of sentimentality. “She was a new person now,” Watkins writes, “which so many American women aspired to be — remade! She herself had often wished it. But now that she had been made anew she found it frightening. She did not know anything about this new person who was her.”
The novel opens with a mother confronting the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale. The test asks her to consider a series of statements — e.g. “I have looked forward with enjoyment to things” — and then pick from four multiple-choice responses. It’s exactly the kind of illusive choice that this mother revolts against. So instead of picking A, B, C or D, she provides little essay responses, like this: “I am a banshee, but cannot get comfortable with being one, am always swinging from bansheeism to playacting sweetness and back. The truth is I cannot play nice and don’t want to, but want to want to, some days.” With such naked honesty, Watkins provides a perfect articulation of her mutinous thoughts, the unresolvable tension between what she feels and what she knows is expected of her.
And then she develops cysts that mutate into a row of teeth in her vagina.
Who is this woman?
That quickly becomes an impossibly complicated question because Watkins has written a novel about a novelist named Claire Vaye Watkins. Some of the most bizarre details here are, in fact, historically true. Watkins’s father really was Charles Manson’s right-hand man, and Claire really did emerge from the Mojave Desert to publish an acclaimed short story collection in 2012. As the narrator says, “I went from being raised by a pack of coyotes to a fellowship at Princeton.”
That person who appears at every bookstore event in the world to ask, “How much of this story is based on your own life?” will finally be justified.
But this isn’t just a super-sophisticated game of autofiction. The unusual method of “I Love You but I’ve Chosen Darkness” — its illicit mingling of fact and fiction — serves as a surprisingly effective representation of what it’s like, for some women, to be handed a newborn. “Motherhood had cracked me in half,” Watkins writes. “My self as a mother and my self as not were two different people, distinct.”
With her usual sardonic wit, she notes that the solution to her crisis is easy: “If I stopped breastfeeding and started meds and kept going to therapy and called my sister every day and journaled and beed a lizard at hot yoga four or more nights a week and took a lover or two, I would be okay — would survive my child’s first winter.”
But instead of doing any of those things, early in the novel, Claire leaves her husband and baby in Ann Arbor, Mich., to do a few author events in Reno, Nev., not far from where she grew up. The two-day business trip gives her a moment to reflect on her status as “an overweight and deeply ambivalent mother, a wunderkind burnout rethinking her impressive career, a white trash orphan spending her bourgeois salary with haste, deeply distracted by various dalliances about town and a serious so-called ‘emotional affair.’ ”
This brief trip also plunges her into memories of her late parents and their old desert ranch. The novel’s elastic structure expands to include the story of her father as a young man, procuring girls for the Manson clan. And we read lots of letters that her mother wrote as a bright, hopeful teenager. Their experiences — so very different from the narrator’s — fill out the spectrum of possibilities, the strange way a life gets redirected by the interplay of temperament, circumstance and fate.
In a moment of panic, Claire decides not to fly back to her husband and baby in Ann Arbor. “I wanted to behave like a man,” she admits, “a slightly bad one.” She reconnects with school friends; she has an affair with a sexy biologist. But if this is a fantasy, it’s a fantasy compromised by her awareness of how she’s affecting her husband and baby. “My problem is I can’t figure out how sorry to be for the way I’ve been,” she says. “I’m either a little sorry, very sorry, or not at all sorry.” More than 60 years after John Updike’s “Rabbit, Run,” the costs of abandonment are still starkly different for new mothers and new fathers.
It’s no coincidence that much of this story takes place in the American desert, a territory that burns away ornament and affectation. Here, on the terrain where she began, Claire sloughs off the skin of a life that doesn’t fit her and begins to discover one that might. It’s a painful transformation, but utterly captivating to witness.
Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.
I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness
By Claire Vaye Watkins
Riverhead. 290 pp. $27