In 2015, author Claire Vaye Watkins drew wide attention in literary circles with the publication of her essay “On Pandering.” Watkins, the author of the critically acclaimed 2012 story collection Battleborn and the 2016 novel Gold Fame Citrus, admitted that she had, in her early fiction, been guilty of pandering to the male critics and authors whose approval she was seeking, producing work that was “for them.” At the end of that essay, Watkins wrote, “Let us, each of us, write things that are uncategorizable, rather than something that panders to and condones and codifies those categories.”
Watkins’ second novel, I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness, lives up to that challenge. Its form is uncategorizable, somewhere between a work of autofiction and memoir that reads like a fully realized work of fiction. It’s also a radical feminist text in conversation with classics of the genre such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” and Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, both of which Watkins namechecks here. I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness is a beautiful, provocative, often jarring meditation on the limits and possibilities of female freedom.
Our narrator, a successful writer named Claire Watkins, has a complicated relationship with the American West, an infant daughter, and a serious case of postpartum depression when she boards a plane bound for Reno, Nevada, her hometown. Reuniting with old college friends, she smokes a lot of weed before an evening literary reading and later makes the highly questionable decision to take ‘shrooms before addressing a high school assembly of at-risk teens. When it comes time to board the plane to return home to her husband and daughter, she bolts instead, abandoning her breast pump and all the trappings of her bourgeois life for an often hedonistic but ultimately transcendent journey that culminates in the Mojave Desert.
In its focus on new motherhood, I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness recalls a couple of other recent novels dealing with postpartum depression, such as Julie Fine’s The Upstairs House and Rachel Yoder’s Nightbitch. As in those works, the line between reality and perception blurs, as when “Claire” discovers a set of teeth growing in her vagina. I’ve Chosen Darkness also relies on the ever-proliferating stacks of autofiction by the likes of Ben Lerner or Rachel Cusk, yet Watkins’s project here feels somehow distinct from those authors’, more rooted perhaps in the deeply personal.
Having just birthed a child of her own, the narrator of this novel seeks to understand herself through reconnecting with her dead parents. Watkins has written before about her complicated family legacy. Her father, Paul Watkins, was a member of the Manson Family and, as her mother once wryly noted, “Charles Manson’s number one procurer of young girls.” He died of cancer at the age of forty. Watkin’s mother, Martha, was a recovered alcoholic who became addicted to oxycontin when she developed a chronic illness and later died of an overdose. “Was it so much to ask,” the narrator writes, “to walk beside them one more time in the place where the Family gave way to our family?”
The novel is told in sections, including a long meditative chapter about the life of Paul Watkins and his relationship with Martha, Claire’s mother. The material in these chapters feels straightforwardly autobiographical, more memoir than novel. Watkins also intersperses the text with real letters from a youthful Martha describing her first forays as a teen into drugs and dating, made particularly poignant given what we know of her later life. At times the weight of the nonfictional threatens to topple the fictional throughline of the book. I often found myself in the book’s first half wondering how this all was going to hold together, and it’s a testament to Watkins’ immense talents as a writer that all these disparate threads become coherent in the book’s stunning conclusion.
I was consistently fascinated by I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness, even when, perhaps especially when, I found myself disapproving of its narrator’s choices. Though Claire claims to always be thinking of the baby she has left behind, baby Ruth is largely absent from the narrative. Presumably, her father, a doctor, has found someone else—most likely another woman—to care for her, but that woman is also absent from this narrative. Which is to say, I too sometimes wish that I could board a plane and leave behind my bougie consumerist lifestyle and let someone else take care of my child as I take a series of lovers and join a commune in the desert. But I suspect that my impulse to judge this narrator is in direct proportion with my own insecurities, my own fears, and unexamined desires. Many of us might wish to do what the narrator of I’ve Chosen Darkness does, but we wouldn’t dare.
A lot of readers will not be able to forgive Claire for deserting her child. Others might condemn the novel for its particular brand of white feminism. I warred with myself over both these issues while reading. Yet in the end, I am glad I read it and even gladder that Watkins wrote it. When I came to the book’s final page I found myself questioning the givens of my own life, willing, at least for a moment, to imagine a different way of being.
I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness
by Claire Vaye Watkins
Published October 5, 2021