NOVEMBER 18, 2021
HOW TO EXPLAIN the premise of I Love You but I’ve Chosen Darkness, the surreal autofiction masterpiece by Claire Vaye Watkins? One option: Author Claire Watkins, the protagonist of the novel, leaves her breastfeeding daughter and husband in Michigan to give a reading to a hometown crowd in Reno, Nevada, and instead of returning to Michigan the next day, she bolts from the plane and joins Noah, a vagabond lover (she and her husband have an open marriage) who lives in a van and roams the West. This launches a raucous adventure that takes her from the Nevada desert to the Pacific Ocean to Death Valley as she reckons with who she is and how she came to be.
Another summary: Author Claire Vaye Watkins dramatizes/fictionalizes her life story as she explores generational trauma, ultimately rejecting the striving persona that enabled her to transcend childhood poverty and a legacy of addiction but also severed her essential connection with the West. Yet another summary could be, simply, that this is a brave novel about a young mother refusing to conform to societal expectations, abandoning those who love her in search of herself.
Ultimately, what this novel is about is freedom and choice, causes and consequences, and it is written in sharp language that is both deeply funny and painful. Completely absent any navel-gazing or self-pity, it is a book that probes questions of family, feminism, ecology, and home, and refuses to settle on easy answers.
In scenes that are equally thrilling and harrowing, Claire is afforded a freedom that female protagonists rarely enjoy. Watkins releases her fictionalized alter ego from societal constraints and withholds judgment — but not consequences. The result is a surprising, invigorating story that follows no script or structure. It is absolutely original, and yet Claire’s motivations — unhappiness in the aftermath of becoming a mother, possible postpartum depression, rancor with her husband — will be familiar to a great many women whose transitions to motherhood are stunning and difficult. She shows a side of motherhood that feels like an erasure and is accompanied by society’s relentless expectations that mothers default to absolute selflessness, an unrealistic demand yet one that pervades all levels of our society. Few women will abandon their young families to probe their pasts, question reality, and explore sex and unconventional love, as Claire does. But they don’t need to. They have I Love You but I’ve Chosen Darkness as an all-encompassing escape.
This is not to say that things go smoothly for Claire. Even as Watkins withholds judgment and allows Claire to make her own choices, each of those choices comes with very real consequences. Claire makes trouble for herself and others, acts selfishly, and endures harsh criticism. And that’s what makes this novel so interesting. The reader is never in collusion with Claire — at least I wasn’t; I found myself both rooting for her and also sympathizing with her husband and baby back in Michigan — but her transgressive rejection of the adult roles she has spent half her life creating is electrifying. These roles include renowned author, professor, wife, and mother.
The novel begins retrospectively, with Claire in her garden surrounded by dolls that her daughter gave “butch haircuts last time she was here.” She reveals that she has tried to tell this story numerous times and that this will be her last try, each failed previous attempt having taken her “further from whatever it is [she’s] after.” Here she also gives us a sense of her mindset in the early months of motherhood: “The story starts at some point in my daughter’s first year, the point perhaps at which I became aware of my inability to feel any feelings beyond those set to music by the Walt Disney Company.” Claire has banned Disney for its “toxic messages and bankrupt values, forbid it my child long before conceiving her.” Yet the 2016 film Moana becomes the soundtrack of her home following her daughter Ruth’s birth. She clings to the film and to Charlotte’s Web, especially a chapter called “Escape,” where Wilbur breaks out of his pen and is cheered by Goose, “soon to be yoked unmerrily to her eggs.”
This is only one of myriad examples of Watkins’s shrewd allusions to the trappings of motherhood, as well as to the contradictions inherent in the role. She hates Disney, and then Disney infiltrates her postpartum life. She sees hope in a pig escaping to the woods, quoting Goose throughout the novel: “[T]he woods, the woods! They’ll never-never-never catch you in the woods!”
Watkins writes about motherhood with precision and insight — each word feels carefully chosen and essential to the narrative. After Ruth’s birth,
[she is] a new person now, 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. What were her interests? Who did she love? Was she also a writer?
These exhilarating questions prime the novel for its inciting incident: Claire cuts a ring of teeth in her vagina around the same time Ruth’s first baby teeth come in. Claire’s vagina dentata are among the more intriguing and imaginative elements of the novel, an example of Watkins repurposing existing myths to claim a feminist power. Traditionally, vaginal teeth underscore a culture’s misogyny and fear of female sexuality — no man wants to risk dismemberment by copulating with a toothy vagina. Claire’s teeth, by contrast, become a cherished source of strength: “Tooth enamel is the hardest substance in the body, I read, understanding myself to be mythical and rare. […] I loved the teeth and was unafraid of that love. I loved freely, as the poet advised. The teeth became my secret companion.” This is the reality Claire experiences when she travels to Reno to give her reading.
Before that part of the story can continue, however, Watkins turns to the past and the stories of her parents, Paul and Martha Watkins. Paul was the right-hand man of Charles Manson who turned police informant. After being purged from the Manson Family, Paul met Martha in Shoshone, California, and the two married and had two girls, Claire and Lise. He was also an artist, writer, jewelry maker, and modern-day homesteader, settling in an old mining cabin near Tecopa. Paul died of cancer at 40, likely a consequence of fallout from US nuclear testing in the Nevada desert.
Her father is a stranger to Claire, available only through memories, a memoir he co-wrote about his time with the Manson Family, and a recording he made before his death that Claire keeps on her iPod. She listens to this the night she gives the reading in Reno, and then goes out partying with old friends who do not care about her authorial success. In the early morning hours, high and chest-deep in the Truckee River, she listens to her father say,
Cancer served me very well. It was as though I got grabbed ahold of by the neck, like God grabbed me by the neck and said, “You want to look at your life and, uh, get it back in the productive mode? You want to really live it, or do you want to continue to rape, pillage and plunder?”
Claire’s mother, Martha, is infinitely more accessible through the letters she wrote as a young girl to her cousin Denise. Watkins includes these letters in the novel, interspersing them with Claire’s present-day narrative. The letters show Martha growing up poor and fast in Nevada, with writerly aspirations. Martha’s mother had multiple husbands, some abusive. She was a free-spirited, boy-crazy, unsupervised counterculturalist who took drugs and questioned the status quo. She was also a self-taught historian, a hustler, the founder of a natural history museum, and a photographer. She “did not always love being a mother,” Claire tells us. Later, she observes, “My mother never got to make everything she wanted to make, to build even a fraction of what she wanted to build.” After decades of sobriety, Martha was prescribed opioids to treat Lyme disease, became addicted, and died at age 49.
This complicated legacy contributes to Claire’s restlessness, surfacing throughout the novel. After Martha died, Claire tells one lover, Noah, that she “left the West, haven’t had a home here since.” The West, though, has stayed with her. Watkins writes of the Nevada and California deserts with deep reverence and love, finding solace in the Amargosa River, which drains the high desert of eastern Nevada into Death Valley and flows almost entirely underground:
I need waterfalls, hanging lakes tinged pink by tailings. At least the deep worshipful divots where the glaciers used to be. Donner, Marlette, Tahoe’s open eye. I see it draining down through the foothills, into Reno and out, disappearing into the Great Basin from which no water escapes, unless you count as escape transmutation into hay, steak, sagebrush, mustangs, bighorns in the Ruby Mountains and beyond those the little town of Ruth.
In the end, Claire does find what she is looking for. She and Theo come to an agreement, and she commits to being the mother that she can to Ruth. But the narrative process of getting from the postpartum depression to the end is unlike any reading experience I’ve ever had. I Love You but I’ve Chosen Darkness begs for multiple readings. On my first, I couldn’t put the book down, so transfixed was I by a mother who refused to play by the rules. On my second, slower reading, I noticed the novel’s craft, its meticulous construction and originality. On yet another, I wished for a map of the places Claire travels to, even as I could feel the hot sun on the canyon walls, hear a rattler beneath a trashed piece of sheet metal. Within these pages, Watkins blurs the line between reality and imagination in prose that is darkly funny, heartfelt, and at times tragic. She writes with precision and control, even as the story seems to travel where it wants to go. Just as her protagonist refuses to conform to the socially acceptable script for young mothers, so too Watkins writes on her own terms.