Book Review: You May Get Lost in “Death Valley”
By Drew Hart
Melissa Broder’s new novel is as amusing as it is bewildering.
Death Valley by Melissa Broder. Scribner, 240 pp.
Just what is going on this season? Well, in one particular literary corner something that has to do with female survival is in fashion. Is it a reflection of the arduous state of the times? (Wouldn’t be hard!) Lately, we’ve seen Lauren Groff’s harrowing saga of a young woman’s endurance in the forests of 17th-century Virginia, The Vaster Wilds (Fuse review); now, on its heels, comes Death Valley, from the multitalented poetess, essayist, and author of several whimsical novels Melissa Broder. It’s a horse of a different color — the delirious tale of a scatterbrained middle-aged writer who gets truly lost in the present day California desert.
Maybe you would be scatterbrained too? Our unnamed narrator has fled Los Angeles for some respite: she has a father who’s been in an ICU for months, slipping in and out of comas, after a near fatal car accident that broke his neck. His future is uncertain at best. Then there’s her husband, perpetually convalescing from a “mystery illness” that has lasted for years, often bedridden or in a wheelchair, unable to work. She herself, a reformed substance abuser, continues to struggle with her own demons: childlessness, depression, midlife doubt, and writing frustration.
Are there solutions in the desert for her? Though it may not be far from there, this is not the Death Valley of National Park fame she lands in; the book’s title is only symbolic. Arriving in a forlorn Mojave town, our heroine (if she can be called that) checks into a plain vanilla Best Western motel, trying to plot her next novel, which seems to be one that closely echoes her own present situation. (We have a nesting doll, story within a story, structure here.Threefold autofiction?) Yet dreams of progressing with her work are interrupted by the realities of her loved ones’ predicaments: she finds herself unable to focus, staying connected to her husband and, when he is conscious, to her father, through FaceTime.
Devoted though she is to both, as well as to her neurotic, nagging mother, she nonetheless heads out to explore her new surroundings, armed with a trail map drafted by a front desk clerk. Parking off a back road, she follows a primitive trail into the emptiness, which exudes an “orchestral quiet.” And from here launches a journey that goes down a proverbial rabbit hole of a Lewis Carroll variety — this woman may have sworn off drugs, but might this be some sort of peyote-powered trip? What she encounters may at times be real, but a lot of what she meets up with is hallucinatory. As she moves deeper and deeper into the beyond, and becomes increasingly lost, the protagonist sees talking stones, communes with rabbits whose paths lead to shelter, finds a giant hollow Saguaro cactus (a type not found in this particular desert) big enough to hide inside — where, in repeated visits, her father and husband appear to her as children and young men. Then, as she’s on the brink of perishing — out of food, water, phone reception, battery life, hobbled by a broken ankle — she is magically rescued … by a giant bird that scoops her up and flies her close enough to civilization to be tracked down.
Really? Is that how she at last comes around in a hospital room, with her husband and mother having found her? Her father has had a breakthrough in recovery. For now, all is right with the world. But when it comes to making sense of what has just happened, it may be better not to scrutinize. Just employ a suspension of disbelief?
Once upon a time, your F.C.* (bows) had a stint in television, and worked on programming supervised by an amiable producer who always encouraged his stars on the set by saying “Have fun with this!” It’s the best way to enjoy Death Valley as well — a lot of what may seem to be wayward and silly is also playful and fun. What to make of an outing that is as amusing as it is bewildering? There are more than a few question marks in this review, aren’t there… we’ll leave it up to you to see what to make of it…
Drew Hart – your *Faithful Correspondent – writes from Santa Barbara, California