I got it into my head that I have been reading a lot of nonfiction lately and I needed to get into a novel. I conducted an online search to see what my local library had on hand, and if something piqued my interested I researched it further. Since I have begun to rely almost solely on the library for my reading material (for pecuniary reasons) I try to take out at least two books at a time so that if I do not connect with one I can turn to the other. After this particular run, I got about seventy-five pages into the first novel I started and tossed it aside. Not bad, but too predictable, too repetitive. And then I picked up I Love You but I’ve Chosen Darkness.
Immediately I was hooked by Watkins’s prose. She has the most refreshing, original, flamboyant, dynamic voice I have experienced from a fiction writer in a long time. Every time I picked it up I experienced great joy. I would laugh out loud; I would weep; I would pause frequently to let the awe settle over me. I would also frequently look at Watkins’s picture on the back flap of the jacket cover. She’s dressed casually and her hair is unkempt; this is all in keeping with the tone of the book. But the most captivating thing is her expression. She is smiling, but in her eyes you can see the complexity and pain that the novel brings out.
This story is the real deal. It is an autobiographical novel. Watkins basically tells her own story with embellishments. She even uses her name as the protagonist and the real names of her parents as she tells their back stories. She does, though, draw the line at revealing the real names of the husband and child she leaves behind when she decides to burst free of her cloying monogamous lifestyle.
She starts out with a description of her acute postpartum depression, and then tells the tale of how her father joined Charles Manson’s murderous cult, how he got free of it, how he met her mother, how he dies young and her mother descends into a nightmare of Oxycontin addiction and overdoses. Watkins then returns to the present, in which she flies out west for a reading, realizes she can’t live the life she used to live, rebels, and doesn’t return. Instead, she hooks up with boyfriends, takes lots of drugs and has lots of sex, wanders into the desert where she was raised, and begins to live her own idiosyncratic life. After a year off on her own, she reconciles with her husband and daughter and they come to live near her but not with her.
At first glance the story seems to be of a selfish, irresponsible woman who abandons her family for a life of hedonism and profligacy. However, it is clear that underlying her stoned, horny, pleasure-seeking exterior there is ongoing pain from an unhealed wound. Ultimately she seeks out the solitude of the desert (albeit with a liberal supply of cannabis) to sort things out.
I wondered as I read what was really going on. The title speaks of choosing darkness but after reading the book it is apparent that she doesn’t mean darkness in the sense of evil. She makes a lot of choices that the majority of people might not agree with, but sincere seekers after truth do not look for majority opinion when they are finding their unique paths in life. In the novel the narrator professes atheism, but what came to me as I read this were explanations concerning meditation by Christian writers and eastern mystics. For instance, St. John of the Cross writes of the necessity of going through the “dark night of the soul” when seeking enlightenment or God. And Thomas Merton, a Catholic monk who extensively studied eastern meditation, wrote that when you encounter God as a result of a sincere search, God manifests in contemplation not as light but as darkness. Whether she believes in God or not, I think that the type of darkness Watkins refers to is the kind you come to when you are all alone in the void of eternity. Some people feel they have to come to that point before they can move on, and some people come to that point and stay right there.
Although I am extremely enthusiastic about this book, I have to add that I feel it sags a bit in the middle. Part of the reason is that Watkins has included several chapters composed of letters her mother wrote to her cousin when she was a preteen and teen. They contain typical news a teenager might share about boyfriends and getting high and so on, but in my opinion they add little to the overall story. Otherwise, like I said, I love Watkins’s authorial voice, and I feel that discovering this book has been a great literary experience.