Claire Vaye Watkins’s second novel, I Love You but I’ve Chosen Darkness, opens with a woman, also named Claire Vaye Watkins, filling out a questionnaire for postpartum depression as her husband looks over her shoulder. A newborn lies in an infant seat at her feet. That’s an autofictional move, but it also allows the author to explore not only her own choices but those of her mother, Martha, and her father, Paul, who once served, in Martha’s words, as the “number one procurer of young girls” for Charles Manson.
In the process, Watkins sets the stage for a modern-day awakening.
Like her creator, the character Claire is a writer and professor. She travels to Reno for a speaking engagement, leaving her husband to care for their baby daughter. Lugging a breast pump, a wicked case of writer’s block, and a complex web of longings, Claire finds relief in solitude and old college friends. But when it’s time to go home, she can’t. She gets off her flight, joining a lover in his van to travel the West from Lake Tahoe to Big Sur. Claire makes no decisions, tends to no obligations, drifting through Las Vegas to her childhood town in the Mojave. “I wanted to behave like a man, a slightly bad one,” she observes, to “take and take and take.”
To call I Love You but I’ve Chosen Darkness a novel about maternal ambivalence would be to get only halfway there. Watkins’s intentions here are more elusive: she wants us to consider our unexamined reactions, to question why it is still a political act for a woman to seek pleasure.
The book meanders through a collage of reflections, letters, history, and guidebooks—most notably, perhaps, a brief, thrilling poem of a chapter titled “How I Like It,” which considers open marriage, abortion, and generational malaise while melting into sex, weed, day drinking, and human ingenuity. “Do you believe that objects can bring you happiness?” a character asks Claire. “If you do, try our paper towel dispenser.” The response is tender and reflective: “I did, feeling the gentlest ticking as the paper product unfurled, a sound if not of forgiveness, then at least of moral support.”
The main story line is broken up by a series of teenage letters, mostly dealing with boys and school, written by the long-dead Martha to a cousin. Their heft suggests the safe haven of sisterhood and the necessity of making space for oneself. The questions Martha raises linger, crossing over into the territory of her daughter’s life. “Is it better to be completely alone or be married to someone you don’t like? Are these the only options?” she wonders. And: “Where will we be? Left alone, like my mom? Or living with some adult baby, cooking and cleaning for him, feeding him, smelling his farts?”
Watkins’s prose is catlike—sleek, elegantly designed, and unconcerned with convention. She captures the problem with Las Vegas, as an example, simply and succinctly. “What future,” she asks, “could there be in a city whose sparkling lore was all violence and infrastructure?”
As Claire stumbles through the fog of her dislocation, the story holds tight to an urgent question: Will she return to her baby? The tension around this is thick with discomfort. How do we feel, watching a woman reckon with marriage and parenthood as a man often does? Indeed, doesn’t Western literature have a long tradition of glorifying the leaving-it-all-behind quest for self? What, then, is the specific flavor of our own revulsion toward a woman who asserts loyalty to herself over her baby? Further, what makes us think we get to have a say?
Watkins, of course, has grappled with entitlement for years. “I have been reenacting in my artmaking,” she writes in her 2015 essay “On Pandering,” “the undying pastime of my girlhood: watching boys, emulating them, trying to catch the attention of the ones who have no idea I exist.” The essay is a manifesto of sorts; among other things, it calls out her first book, the story collection Battleborn, as an “exercise in self-hazing” and lists those she had failed to write toward, “women, young women, people of color, the rural poor, the American West, my dead mother,” declaring a turn in her career.
She is working from somewhere closer to her center now.
So much love emanates from I Love You but I’ve Chosen Darkness. It is an insider’s story, often told in code, using the hidden language of the body. Soaking in a public bath, Claire considers the older women she encounters. “Their bodies,” she recalls, “were the first books I read and those books were mostly about work. Child-rearing, housework, yard work, waiting tables, prospecting. Markings of birth about the breasts, thighs, belly and—though I did not know this then—inside. Most deformed of all were the feet, mangled by one long story—centuries long—in which a girl brings a man a drink.”
This leads to the conundrum at the center of the novel: Is it Claire who is broken, or is it the culture? Watkins, perhaps, offered the glimpse of an answer last year, in a New York Times Book Review essay about Kate Chopin’s proto-feminist novel The Awakening. “A body in touch with a world,” Watkins wrote there, “feels oppression like a flame, and recoils. For gaslit people—women, nonbinary and queer people, people of color…pleasure and sensation are not frivolous or narcissistic but an essential reorientation.” •