What I'm Reading, Battleborn26 Feb 2016
"At the end, I can't stop thinking about beginnings."
The story could begin anywhere, the author Claire Vaye Watkins lets on in her 2013 book Battleborn. In Melvillian style, flourish the opening story to her 2012 collection of stories on Nevada resists to begin. "Or begin the story here," she says, and then later, "Or here. Here is as good place as any." Like the characters within, the narrative belies its responsibilities to its readers. Family, friends, lovers or otherwise, relationships are not taken for granted. They are equal parts labor and unsettling for the reader. It's a bullfighter's pose, and like the gold miners who watch in the story The Diggings, perched in the treetops from afar, the matador is capable and willing to execute the bull at any time. There are no assumptions that the author relaxes on.
From the first story, Ghosts and Cowboys, our narrator's cavalier dismissal to the characters around her, including the ever-hovering presence of the "Razor Blade Baby," puts the reader in the unfamiliar position of critic. We watch with uncertainty as she glosses over the loss of her mother, the notoriety of her father, and, if you're not paying attention, her blood relation to the ghostly figure living above her. When a love interest pursues her in the story, you're weary of his advances. It is not, however, because he comes off disingenuous. It's the distance our narrator puts between herself and her emotions that make his pursuit hollow. So it's a little deafening when her ghostly follower acknowledges, "Claire... I could be your sister." The conceit is not devastating because of its reveal, instead it's a flattening feeling of the obvious connection Claire shares to her sister living next door with an unspeakable history.
Paying attention is the key experience reading Battleborn. Like the prospector in the desert, or wayward Italian teenager outside the shine of Vegas, without your gaze transfixed on the horizon, you wouldn't see the heatwaves issuing from below.
In the second story The Last Thing We Need, you follow the one sided correspondence of a Thomas Grey, who stumbles upon the roadside scattered possessions of a Duane Moser. As each letter goes without response, Mr. Grey's building curiosity is matched with his ever unfurling privacy, as he lets on more intimate details of his own life. His desire to relate to Moser is equal to his want of understanding. The driving force of his obsession in knowing why Moser left it all behind, is personal. As the story resolves, it's clear that in knowing, Grey would be released from grappling with his own direction forward.
Grey's story serves as mimesis for the reader's encounter with Claire Vaye Watkins' Nevada. For me, the detachment Ms. Watkins engenders in her landscapes, wells within the reader a desire to connect. You empathize with the heartless as they observe emotion in others that seems so out of control to you. She surprises you by showing you your capacity to indifference, through the eyes of her narrators.
In Rodine Al Nido, where four underage friends masquerade as College Freshman under the gaze of the Vegas lights, their one girlfriend, who is given no name (simply described as the girl), receives unimaginable trauma at the hands of drunk anonymous men. Her friends not only watch, but are complicit in their insobrietous dismissal of the girl's sexual assault.
The young woman's sexual assault is not served in a dramatic fashion, either, it occurs with the matter of factness of a sprinkling of rain on a cloudy day. It is environmental, conditional, common place. Meanwhile, the reader's sits restrained behind the subdued eyes of the girlfriends watching with detachment as their friend's shirt is lifted while she sleeps. "We're having fun," they drone.
The emotional high of the story, instead, rests on the end. The narrator observes their girlfriend sob one day in class. The day. The day two planes plunged deep into the belly of the World Trade Center. She's moved by the girl's tears. She isn't moved because of her feelings. She is moved that, "a person can change in an instant." She then thinks of her own benefit, that the tragedy will take her from school, "as if she doesn't know the instability of a tall tower, a city's hunger for ruin."
"As if this weren't what she came for."
The story ends, as if a beginning were not the demands of any of Claire Vaye Watkins' stories, but the ruin within we searched for.