365 Books in 365 Days – Episode 167 by Annie Walton Doyle

Death Valley by Melissa Broder

“I came to escape a feeling – an attempt that’s already going poorly, because unfortunately I’ve brought myself with me, and I see, as the pink light creeps out to infinity, that I am still the kind of person who makes another person’s coma about me.”

There are certain authors whose books always feel like a special treat; for me, one such treat is Melissa Broder. So it’s safe to say I went into Death Valley with extremely high expectations. Luckily, I was right to rely on my instinct, and this beautiful tale of love and loss in the desert was all I had hoped – and more.

Death Valley represents Broder’s unique take on a survival story. In the novel, our narrator escapes to the desert – ostensibly to work on her novel, but also to try to cope with her husband’s chronic illness and her father’s impending death. There’s some of that signature Broder weirdness – a giant, imaginary cactus she can enter and play with her father’s inner child within – but really, it’s a story about how to cope with life.

Broder poses surviving the desert as a reflection of surviving the tragedy of being a human. Our narrator is riddled with anticipatory grief and anxiety about her father, guilt and doom about her husband. She doesn’t know how to cope with these terrifying, existential questions; thus, reducing her life’s scope to how not to die in Death Valley is an oddly welcome relief. 

The writing is compelling, and the second half of the story is almost like a thriller movie. “And it dawns on me then that I must really want to live. And it surprises me.” But as we root for our narrator to make it through the night, we are also tackling much bigger questions. Death is never far away, and its inevitable arrival is a creeping decay over any potential for joy or happiness.

The dry, arid climate of the novel is unfriendly and cruel. “I feel very small. Like a bug. Or a human.” The world is cruel, although there is respite. Our narrator finds a home inside a purported cactus, makes friends with a selection of beautiful rocks, and sees her father in a mustached oriole. Nonetheless, Broder is giving us the impression that whether you’re in a barren wasteland or a hospital bed, the world doesn’t really care if you live or die. 

Death Valley is packed with plenty of Broder doing what Broder does best. There’s surrealism and disorientation, made more potent by the hazy, dehydrated fever dream of desert mirages. There’s also that signature focus on the body. “There is never enough pee in novels,” Broder muses, before telling us about a “diarrhea monsoon.” But this gross viscera only serves to make the vulnerable, existential questions of the novel more poignant.

The novel is a joyous mix of high and low, surreal and visceral, gross and profound. According to our narrator, God and Reddit are given the same authority on how to deal with life, death, and grief. 

“Miraculous what you have done with love. Alone in your own desert. Not alone but feeling alone, because you were with me, and I did not understand, however much I would have wanted to. Not alone. But all the while between us a great divide. How did you do it? How did you stay kind?”

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