Claire Vaye Watkins, the narrator of “I Love You but I’ve Chosen Darkness,” the new novel by the author Claire Vaye Watkins, has been having a rough time. When the book opens, she’s recently given birth to a baby girl, whose recriminatory inner soliloquies she sometimes imagines: “My bitch mama left me with a stranger named Miss Moonbeam. . . . my bitch mama doesn’t understand me.” Claire, a fiction writer of some renown, can’t work, can’t write, because she no longer knows who she is. A strange woman, who doesn’t fit into her clothes or understand the books on her shelves, has moved into her home; Claire simultaneously is this woman and feels displaced by her arrival. “Narrative was failing me,” she says. “All it was was fallible. I checked various copyright pages and confirmed these to be unforgivably dated observations.”
Watkins’s foray into the canon of mom-lit reads, appropriately, like a piece of writing that did not enter the world easily. The story is about hard creative labor—early on, Claire says, “I’ve tried to tell it a bunch of times”—and Watkins, a brash and practiced talent, is drawing on knotted material. Fans may recall her viral essay “On Pandering,” from 2015, which she originally delivered as a lecture about a year after her daughter was born. Motherhood, Watkins said, turned her imagination into a desert. She didn’t know how to square her writing self with the new domestic demands. She attempted a short story “in the form of a postpartum-depression questionnaire,” but set it aside, convinced that her character’s concerns were “quaint.”
That questionnaire, or one like it, appears in an early chapter of “I Love You but I’ve Chosen Darkness.” You can see why Watkins returned to the conceit. The form’s sterile, inadequate prompts (“I have looked forward with enjoyment to things”) ramp into multiple-choice answers (“As much as I ever did,” “Not quite as much now”)—but Watkins’s narrator free-associates her replies, making room for particularity. (In response to “I have looked forward with enjoyment to things,” Claire writes, “Pain-free bowel movements, sushi, limitless beer and pot brownies, daycare, prestige television events, everyone going home.”) The questionnaire is numb to the experience of new mothers, incapable of theorizing their inner lives with any nuance or flair. Claire steps into the breach, and her answers feel not so much skimmed from her stream of consciousness as scraped, like debris, from a crater.
Yet this is not a book about a mother, at home, meditating on the throes of her condition. Instead, Claire, using a speaking gig as a pretext, flees her husband, daughter, and tenure-track professorship in the Midwest for the Mojave Desert, where she grew up. The novel, meanwhile, regresses into the past, unfolding the backstories of her parents. Claire’s father, Paul Watkins, was a musician and miner who got tangled up with Charles Manson, wrote an apologetic memoir, and died of cancer when Claire was a girl. (The book circles, alongside Manson, several other figures of plunder: white settlers of Indigenous land, the Sacklers.) Her mother, Martha, was an artist who raised gardens from the sand, thanks in part to a technique known, in the family, as “view it at night,” which involved “the stealing of landscaping elements from a corporation by cover of darkness.” After being diagnosed with Lyme disease, Martha got hooked on opioids and eventually overdosed. Her death blooms into what Claire refers to as her “big gnar,” or primal wound.
Carl Jung is said to have called “the unlived life of the parents” the “greatest burden a child must bear.” Watkins ratifies this observation, and, in a tour-de-force riff on the question (posed by friends and lovers) “What’s your problem?,” she builds to a revelation: “My problem is I have the job she never got to have and the education she never got to have and I’m intimidating and not as nurturing as anyone thought I’d be. My problem is I didn’t convert. My problem is I’m all set.” For Claire, stepping back from her bright career would slight Martha, who could never afford such comforts. But she can make fun of her vocation, and some of the book’s finest prose pours from her affectionate mockery. Claire is honest and lacerating about the pull of prestige, especially for a woman whose coming of age entailed truant punks knocking each other’s teeth out with baseball bats. “Once I was talking to Michael Chabon at a reception and Ira Glass interrupted Chabon to talk to me and then—then!—someone cut in to talk to Ira and it was Meryl Streep,” she pictures telling an ex-boyfriend. As such moments reveal, Claire is haunted by the life Martha never got to lead, but she also yearns to resume her own life, the one she had right up until, suddenly, she had a daughter instead.
This yearning for life, or for a particular kind of life, serves as the book’s subject and governing mood. It also powers the plot. After embarking on her desert spree, Claire smokes weed with her old crew, gives a chaotic reading, and, in what she calls a “creative writing exercise,” cajoles a gymnasium full of underserved students to lie on the floor. She sprinkles shrooms on her pizza and wades beatifically into a river. At one point, having boarded a plane back home, Claire bolts off and absconds to Lake Tahoe to meet her lover, a hippie biologist who shows her bioluminescent plankton. (They have hot sex and later part ways; Claire realizes that his personality consists of owning a van.) All of this, by the logic of the narrative, is necessary: Claire is, after all, the Main Character, whose growth and happiness define the story’s stakes. There’s a ripple of wish fulfillment here, which Watkins seems humorously aware of: she has turned Claire’s rote domestic plight into a fantasy of escape.
And what about Watkins’s own desires? In “On Pandering,” she spoke about the pressure she felt to write “toward” a “man in my mind,” perhaps a “chain smoker from New Mexico, the short story writer called ‘Cheever’s true heir.’ ” Reflecting on her first collection, “Battleborn,” from 2012, which featured austere stories about miners, cowboys, and starlets, Watkins feared that she had been trying to “impress old white men,” her sentences insisting: “I can write hard, unflinching, unsentimental.” With her latest, Watkins returns to the scene of the crime—“Battleborn” and her previous novel, “Gold Fame Citrus,” both took root in the Western desert—and the book thrums with her inimitable sense of place. But, if Watkins once prioritized the tastes of the “white male literati,” her new novel centers her—her autofictional avatar, yes, but also her sensibility and vision. Unlike the masculine tradition invoked in the lecture, this book does not fetishize the refusal of beauty. (Indeed, it is often very beautiful.) And, where “Battleborn” juxtaposed a blanched terrain with lush but empty mythologies, “I Love You but I’ve Chosen Darkness” takes seriously the redemptive possibilities of narrative. Claire is an author. If anything can save her, it’s her song.
In fact, Claire’s soul does reawaken in the desert. Aside from going on drug-fuelled adventures, she performs such healing acts as bidding goodbye to the Watkinses’ derelict ranch, checking in on her extended family, and working through sticky layers of guilt, anger, and love. This is the stuff of countless wry novels of midlife, with their ledgers of loss and recompense—except for the shrieking fact of the abandoned baby, which (for this reader, at least) rains down holy terror upon every page. If Watkins’s writing contains anything derivative, perhaps it’s that Claire’s notion of freedom, of self-actualization, resembles that of a shitty man. She cuddles inappropriately with a student and sleeps for several weeks in her university’s arboretum. She advises an acquaintance not to “succumb” to monogamy or babies. In couples therapy, she tells her husband: “I have trouble thinking of you as a person. I just forget to wonder what you’d want.” Claire is, by her own breezy admission, a “dirtbag.”
Still, the book distinguishes itself from the valorized male getaway. For one, “I Love You but I’ve Chosen Darkness” is a bonanza of consequences, many of which do not befall the protagonist but, rather, originate within her. (They range from bursts of longing at the sight of a stranger’s baby to the ordeal of pretending to cherish time spent with one’s own child.) Watkins celebrates Claire’s quest (to resolve the past’s unfinished business) and her own (to reclaim her art for herself), but she remains clear-eyed about the costs of each. Whether or not the narrator, as a self-interested woman in a misogynistic country, “deserves” punishment, she cannot escape it. This is the darkness that she has chosen.
And, if the book claims a place in the archive of ambivalent motherhood, alongside works by Sheila Heti, Rachel Cusk, and Jenny Offill, it also breaks the mold. Claire risks more than other sad-mom protagonists, pulling off a jailbreak that they only dream about. But her inner monologue, while seductively specific, isn’t always tortured. She experiences the pain of being away from her daughter, but she seems less anguished by how others—the white men in her head, perhaps—might interpret her. It’s as if Watkins is closing the door on the other novels’ agonizingly open questions, about whether a woman is “allowed” to pursue her art, or whether she’s a bad person for begrudging the black hole of time and selfhood that is a baby. In one passage, Claire vents about the professionals who respond to her depression with assurances that “all this was perfectly common.” “What did I care that it was normal?” she fumes. Her pain has little to do with public acceptance, with the need to justify herself before the male gaze. Much of motherhood literature can radiate a sort of wounded egotism, as if the greatest crime that society might commit against a woman were to think ill of her. Watkins, though, neither stews nor panders. She just follows her light.