Leaving behind her husband Theo and their young daughter, Claire, a writer, gets on a flight for a speaking engagement in Reno, not carrying much besides a breast pump—and a creeping case of postpartum depression. But what begins as a temporary escape from domestic duties and an opportunity to reconnect with old friends soon mutates into an extended flight from the confines of marriage and motherhood, and a seemingly bottomless descent into the depths of the past.
The brazenly frank depiction of Claire’s bad behavior offers constant reminders of just how sharp and funny Ms. Watkins’s writing can be ... Her unapologetically self-involved wanderings from therapy to drugs to extramarital flings have some of the depraved zaniness of a Hunter S. Thompson road trip. For a time the narrative seems animated by the same death drive that has possessed its heroine, and if the depths it reaches are disturbing they are also strangely exhilarating ... But this doesn’t last, and soon enough Ms. Watkins pulls out of free fall and back toward respectability, obedient to the formula of confession and absolution that describes nearly every work of autobiographical fiction ... The evidence of her rehabilitation is that she is able to write again, yielding the book we have just read. And so at last readers perform their true function in relation to this novel: as witnesses to the author’s therapeutic breakthrough.
The immediacy of the first-person voice, notable even in the title, suggests we may be reading a memoir. So does the narrator’s name, which, as it happens, is Claire Vaye Watkins ... But this is indeed a novel, and it’s an intense, intelligent and bristly one ...I Love You but I’ve Chosen Darkness can be difficult to track; characters appear without backgrounds, prose unfolds as poetry, material is quoted at length from the author’s father’s 1979 memoir, My Life With Charles Manson, as well as from the narrator’s mother’s letters to a cousin ... This novel’s sweaty urgency, its ambitious disruption of form and content, makes it tough to criticize ... A slice of her mother’s back story is told through sets of letters so dull only a daughter could love them ... But most prose wouldn’t stand up against the narrator’s breakneck pace, frightening honesty and biting, self-deprecating humor ... As Watkins writes, in a virtuoso performance of a chapter titled 'How I Like It,' 'I am not choosing darkness, but darkness is choosing me.' Maybe, but by nourishing her complicated desires, she holds on. Perceptive and shameless.
Watkins riffs lovingly on [autofiction] ... [And] shows that autofiction, as much as any other mode of writing, can be escapist ... No matter how much the fictional Claire may seem like the real Watkins, readers can’t just decide the two are the same ... Watkins seems to use Claire’s flight westward to dramatize fiction’s improvisatory potential: Her novel becomes structurally looser and shaggier with every chapter ... Watkins’s freewheeling excavation of her family’s story may be frustrating to readers seeking more allegiance to reality: So many of us feel irreversibly beholden to loved ones, history, or convention. But I Love You but I’ve Chosen Darkness...is not slickly false. [It's a] messy, bighearted book that prioritize emotional searching.