“I wanted, says the narrator of Claire Vaye Watkins’ second novel, “to behave like a man, a little mean” – and if there is a sentence to put on a tote bag, it is this one. What woman hasn’t sometimes wanted to adopt the kind of smiling mediocrity that men take for granted? But what is mediocre in a man is unforgivable in a woman; worse if she is also a mother. And so we find ourselves locked in by circumstances; and the worse the circumstances, the smaller the box. This is the territory Watkins explores, and she does it forcefully, resisting the urge to sentimentalize or apologize.
Shortly after the birth of her first child, the novel’s narrator leaves her home, taking her breast pump, but leaving behind her husband and daughter. She, too, left her middle-class college life to return to California where she grew up, a place of chaotic poverty and casinos, OxyContin, coyotes and desert. The name of this imploding narrator, it becomes apparent, is Claire Vaye Watkins. The fictional Watkins shares at least some biographical details with the author Watkins – a mother called Martha; a father who first bought daughters for, then testified against Charles Manson – and yet it is unmistakably a novel. It’s a mark of Watkins’ confidence that she flaunts her source material so brazenly, and I loved her for it. The question of the female imagination sometimes seems tediously inescapable, the autofiction tag so easily applied, that finding an author who confronts the problem head-on is invigorating. It also forestalls questioning, forcing the reader to focus on what’s in front of them. And what emerges is a study of intergenerational pain.
Although the novel focuses on women, it is poverty, rather than patriarchy, that is presented as the central evil, and Watkins writes with clarity that acquiring money does not automatically alleviate poverty. legacy of a difficult childhood. Nearly every character that comes in and out of view is damaged in some way by chronic poverty and the scavengers that follow it: poor service delivery, a predatory gambling industry, a prescription drug crisis. In one of the most haunting sections of the book, Claire’s mother, after years of sobriety, is prescribed opiates for Lyme disease, long thought to be hysteria, and quickly loses control of her life. . The exception is Rust, the narrator’s college friend, who, isolated by wealth past and present, finds perfect joy in the gentle action of his automatic paper towel dispenser – a detail that struck me makes you laugh and wince at the same time. Yet men, even good ones, transmit their suffering to women, expecting to be cared for and cared for. ‘I was determined to get out of college without being raped,’ Claire says, ‘a real goal I had’ – but she can only achieve it through a sleight of hand, choosing to play the role of something else while her boyfriend, “not at all violent but also inflexible”, holds her back. This, she seems to say, is how so many women survive – thanks to a stubborn refusal to to be a victim, which is quite different from not being harmed.
There are parts that I found less compelling. When Claire talks to her college friends, the writing loses some of its power. Perhaps the intention was to show a connection failure; if so, it didn’t quite work for me. The narrator’s mother’s teenage letters to a cousin add little to the book’s scope and are presented in reverse chronological order, a slight misstep in a novel that is otherwise impeccably readable, despite its episodic structure. On the other hand, Watkins is great about the boring quality of depression, how it can make you both lucid and carefree. A section in which Claire lists her problems, ranging from not being able to find her phone to not being able to grasp what final death is, ends: “My problem is that I’m only a little embarrassed by it all and that I don’t want to change at all.” She’s also good about how having a kid can feel broken. “Motherhood had split me in two… The woman they looked up to, who had written the books they loved or at least heard about, even today, happened to be the other side of a canyon.”
I had this book, at first considered angry, but struggled as I read to characterize the quality of that anger – until I realized that what I had taken to be fury was something else. I love you but I chose the darkness is not a novel of rage but of incandescent sadness, beaming with grief for the lost, the damaged, the left behind. He is remarkably clairvoyant. While presenting the causes of Claire’s meltdown, Watkins never takes context for an excuse. What she offers instead is compassion and the suggestion that, for those fortunate enough to have a choice, the only way out may be to pass.