Short Work by Chelsea BiekerShort Work

The sum of that which we endure: haunted by Claire Vaye Watkins

BattlebornBy Chelsea Bieker

ever a better time to begin writing a column about short story collections, than after reading Claire Vaye Watkins’ debut title, Battleborn. Brace yourself. The following paragraphs are a gushing of my intense love for Claire. For Battleborn, I mean. Though I have been fantasizing that Claire and I could be BFFs, spending our days riding bikes along desolate desert highways, getting into mischief stealing peacocks from the local whorehouse. But even more interesting than my unabashed writer crush, are her stories. This is the best collection I have come across in a long time, the sort of book that makes me want to go home early because I’m “tired,” then stay up reading until 3 a.m.

The first story in the collection, "Ghosts, Cowboys", taps into her Manson legacy: “My father didn’t kill anyone. And he’s not a hero. It isn’t that kind of story.” Yes, she is the daughter of Charles Manson’s main procurer of young girls, Paul Watkins, and this story leans heavily into autobiographical territory. In an L.A. Times interview she says "Ghosts, Cowboys" was placed first in the collection, “getting the Manson thing out of the way.” So if you read this book purely to spy on Paul Watkins daughter, you will be immensely satiated, though not by her publicized lineage, but by her writing. Joy Williams describes Watkins’ sentences as “cool and clean and not a word wasted.” There is a propulsion to her syntax and an effect of surprise. I felt genuinely captured by the storylines themselves, but also consumed by her sheer handling of language. "Ghosts, Cowboys" is an intricate weaving of multiple narratives and histories that toys with it’s own structure, restarting the tale several times: “Or begin the story here”… “Or here. Here is as good a place as any.” It is told in first person and winds it’s way from the beginnings of Charles Manson’s famed Spahn’s ranch, to the present day, when the narrator is being tracked down by a reporter to talk about her father, her mysterious half-sister “Razor Blade Baby” always in tow.

"The Last Thing We Need" is a definite stand out in the collection. Watkins tells the story through one man’s unreciprocated letters that begin with his discovery of abandoned property. The letters build and shift into documents of quiet and desperate confession. “I tell you what I don’t tell her, that there is something shameful in this, the buoying of our sinking spirits with old stories.” I found this to be one of the most powerful pieces, and craft-wise, a difficult structure to execute and certainly something to study. I continued to wait for a reply letter just as the main character did, and when none arrived, it was amazing to watch the narrative stand completely upon these one-way correspondences. I continually paused to appreciate the poignant sentences she drops into the mix of often high-action narratives, without ever becoming precious: “Sometimes love is a wound that opens and closes, opens and closes, all our lives.” She has a knack for placement, and when these lines come along, they sound off as inevitable and true.

I was struck again and again by Watkins’ handling of place. All ten stories incorporate rich landscapes of the American West, primarily Nevada and Death Valley regions, offering palpable portraits of Las Vegas, Virginia City, 1849 Goldrush territory, and a modern-day cathouse. There is a feeling that Watkins has memorized these places, that they are an intrinsic part of her. The details are not typical or expected; they are highly exclusive to someone who has been a local, who has a keen eye for minute particulars, and is privy to the inward struggles of the people who inhabit these places. “We are nothing but the sum of that which we endure,” says one of her characters, and this idea forms a backdrop for the whole book—these characters enduring their own upsetting circumstances, intense losses, private shames, and fearful inadequacies.

Watkins’ stories satisfy on a craft level, but on an emotional level as well—there is a haunted longing wafting up from every word. And when you glance at Watkins’ personal life, she certainly has enough to draw from, from her father’s well-documented history and his death when she was a young child, to her mother’s more recent suicide. Her stories catapulted me into a more extensive session of internet stalking than I usually engage in with other writers I read, and I found it interesting when she spoke of the pain of losing her mother in an interview. “I think I'd started to think of myself as inured to grief, that it was always a part of me," Watkins says. “My mom's death really made obvious how ridiculous that idea is.” She disrupts the popular societal ideas of responding to loss, that we come out better for it, that the growth we will experience will make it somehow worthwhile. There is a rejection of this in her work, and a bit in her commentary. For her characters, loss is loss, and there isn’t a packaged movie-like ending to it. That we can certainly be worse off for it, her stories exemplify in the most beautiful and startling ways.

Take a walk through these dismal and charged landscapes, meet the prostitutes of the Cherry Patch Ranch in "The Past Perfect, The Past Continuous," experience the gold rush in "The Digging"s and see the collection to its powerful end in "Graceland" as two sisters process their mother’s death. Be immersed in the bravery and imagination of these stories. Under their uncertain circumstances, under their dark and layered surfaces, is a very sure master of her craft. Watkins will get to you, and make you believe in this form and all its vast capability.

Chelsea Bieker is a fiction writer currently at work on a collection of stories. Her work has recently appeared in The Collagist and is forthcoming in The Normal School. Her review of Alan Holinghurst's The Stranger's Child appeared in Propeller in the Fall of 2011.