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English department


Battleborn by Claire Vaye Watkins

Claire Vaye Watkins’ novel Battleborn is a collection of ten short stories that all have strong ties to Nevada, as the motto “Battleborn” implies. All of the stories are written using realism. Claire Vaye Watkins uses many storytelling techniques. A common theme in all of the stories is suffering. The only thing that can be counted on through this novel is the rough, beaten Nevada terrain. Readers quickly learn not to expect any happy endings or redemption. The characters are usually people that society does not value; they are often hard to sympathize with because of their selfishness, lack of affection, and lack of empathy. The content of the stories is almost always shocking and sad. People should read this novel if they are looking for a storyteller who is unsentimental and realistic.

The stories vary. “The Past Perfect, The Past Continuous, The Simple Past” is about a young Italian man who is on holiday and abandons his friend outside Las Vegas and waits for the inevitable bad news of his friend’s fate at a whorehouse where he falls for a prostitute. In “Rondine al Nido”, the main character enables the sexual assault of her best friend. Both of these stories are sad and are told from the perspectives of people that are repulsive. These repulsive characters are featured in almost all of the stories of Battleborn. Perhaps Claire Vaye Watkins is demonstrating that we are all repulsive in our own way. She could be commenting on the state of humanity as a whole.

The first story of the book is “Ghosts, Cowboys”. This story seems to be autobiographical. Claire Vaye Watkins tells of her own heritage, revealing that she is the daughter of Paul Watkins, the well-known right hand man of Charles Manson, a criminal who was convicted of the conspiracy to commit the murders of three people in the 1960s. She mentions that she is the result of a casual sexual encounter. In revealing her heritage, Claire Vaye Watkins seems to be giving herself the license to write these horrific stories. It seems that Claire Vaye Watkins establishes her credibility through this story. She writes in a very distinct and careless way. She starts by giving several different introductions, writing something like this each time she starts over in a new place: “Or here. Here is as good a place as any” (3). In telling readers it does not matter where the tale begins, she makes herself seem like a very confident and honest author, and she also seems to be demeaning her own story. Saying that it does not matter how she writes the story or where she starts it makes the story seem cheap and unintentional. Claire Vaye Watkins seems to devalue her characters by making them repulsive and stuck in their lives. I would argue that none of her characters undergo a transformation. This, I think, makes her book rather uninspiring. Stories need characters that readers root for, and I think the stories lacked dynamic characters.

Another story, “Wish You Were Here”, Claire Vaye Watkins uses present tense and moves over to past tense at one point during the story. Marin and Carter are soon to be parents. Carter is excited to be a father and Marin is bored in her marriage. It is clear when she tells how her baby rolled off the bed when she was taking a shower that Marin is an unfit mother. This story features unfit parents. Unfit parents are used in almost all of the stories of Battleborn. Both “Ghosts, Cowboys” and “Wish You Were Here” are good samples from this book which establish its theme. The book is about people with difficult pasts and difficult presents. It is about people who want to have hope and happiness, but don’t.

Claire Vaye Watkins has a very interesting writing style. She uses short blunt sentences that are shocking such as, “I want you to be quiet and let me fuck you” (161). She also uses a variety of tenses. She uses present tense in an interesting way, making the story seem like it’s moving very quickly and inevitably. “It begins with a man and a woman. They are young. They marry. They buy a house” (101). These short present tense sentences make readers follow the story quickly. She often slides into past tense, which makes the story realistic and unalterable. Chapters that begin with statements like, “There was no salve for the space he left” immediately orient readers into the world of the characters and cause readers to wonder why the seemingly random information Watkins provides is important. The dialogue Claire Vaye Watkins uses, I think, most characterizes her writing. She mostly uses profanity and realistic vernacular to establish her characters.

I think Claire Vaye Watkins was good at keeping her readers interested by writing about topics that are not usually written about. I think it is fascinating to reading about people who have lost all hope. I do think, however, that her depressing and vulgar topics make the book inaccessible for readers who simply want a relatable character and a happy ending. I would advise those who read Battleborn to go into it knowing that the book is written to make people reflect and wonder. This book does not provide readers with explanations or comforts. It simply chronicles incidents in the lives of people who battle with their own mistakes and their heritage.

By: JANE MENTINK