Battleborn is a debut collection from writer Claire Vaye Watkins. In this collection of stories, Watkins explores the western landscape that was the home of her youth. She creates vivid pictures of life in the “desert” of Reno, Las Vegas, and nearby areas. She also considers and reinvents her own history and its (tenuous) connection to “Helter Skelter” and Charles Manson.
I struggled to finish this book. I feel horrible even admitting that, but I did. I’m going to preface this by saying that I hate (really, truly hate) writing this review because (1) who the hell am I to criticize something this renowned and well-received? and (2) I really wanted to like this book so much more than I did. I also feel particularly harsh in my criticisms because this is the author’s first book. It’s her first published collection and, as such, it shouldn’t be compared with some of the other works I’ve been reading by authors who have numerous (numerous) books under their belts. But, alas, my reaction is my reaction.
My issues with the stories is that they felt too much like writing. They felt like they’d been “workshopped” to death. Both of these are things I never thought I’d say because I never really understood what these complaints meant. I’d heard people say them, but I’d never really noticed something that “felt” like writing. (My question was always, “Shouldn’t writing always feel like writing?” But the truth is. No. No it should not.) I also got the distinct impression that the stories were trying to please too many audiences, too many readers. It left each of them with a distinctly schizophrenic and undecided flavor that ultimately fell short. I’m not sure how to explain this other than to say that there was distinct lack of unity, cohesion, and focused voice in them. I felt like I was reading a debut collection because it felt like the writer is still deciding who she is as a writer. And I think that’s why I struggle so much with my feelings. Because I have no idea who I am as a writer either.
I was reminded of a criticism I remember hearing regarding an American Idol contestant years ago (stay with me, I promise I’m going somewhere with this). The singer was technically proficient and her voice was beautiful, but the critic said that when she was on stage it was like she was saying, “Hey, listen to my beautiful voice and what it can do,” rather than her being on stage saying, “Listen to my song. Listen to the story I have to tell through music.” This book felt like that to me. It felt like a showcase of some beautiful prose that had no true, essential, unique message. The fact that the author included a reimagining of her own history and it’s connection to Charles Manson was said to be her attempt to “get it over with,” but I have no idea why that was necessary. That particular story (“Ghosts, Cowboys”) had numerous beginnings, never really deciding where it should begin and where it should focus, and that same feeling permeated the whole collection.
Some of the stories drew me in and carried me throughout, but then, as they approached their end, it felt like they went on a bit too long. Like they were attempting to make some grander proclamation or statement than was possible. Like they felt this impending pressure to be so much more than they’d intended. In actuality, they should have just continued the path they’d started and been content to simply be a good story. Like I said, it was like the attempt was to showcase writing, rather than share a solid story.
Take away for my writing:
Keep a story’s message and point in focus. Great and beautiful writing is wonderful, but only if there’s a premise that works underneath it. Otherwise, it will feel like writing.
Strengths: Beautiful prose and detailed description of a specific landscape in America
Weaknesses: Lacking in premise, unity, and focus within each individual story
Favorite(s): “The Archivist” and “Virginia City”
Least favorite(s): “Ghosts, Cowboys”