Melissa Broder, a popular Twitter personality, talks about her novel Death Valley, which delves into themes of loss and coping mechanisms, and also shares her thoughts on the concept of “the musking”. She describes her work as a chaotic and intense exploration of the human experience.
Elissa Broder describes her third novel, “Death Valley,” as a satirical take on autobiographical fiction. The beginning of the novel loosely follows Broder’s own life, with an unnamed novelist living in Los Angeles embarking on a research trip in the desert for her latest book. Similar to Broder’s own experiences, the protagonist’s father is in the intensive care unit and her husband is dealing with a mysterious chronic illness. However, around 40 pages into the story, things take a bizarre turn. While on a hike, the main character comes across a gigantic cactus and inside, she encounters her father in the form of a child.
The book starts off with a clever and mind-bending exploration of sorrow – the most eccentric addition to the author’s collection, which also includes the well-loved 2018 novel The Pisces, about a woman who falls for a merman. For Broder, the harsh desert landscape of California was the perfect setting for a tale about a woman struggling with complicated emotions of what she calls “preemptive grief.” She explains, “We have no control over our feelings. We have no control over how long grief will last. And we have no control over nature. But despite its barren appearance, the desert is actually full of life – you just have to learn how to navigate it.”
The concept for this tale of sorrow and survival in the desert was conceived by Broder during the pandemic. Her father had been involved in an accident and was hospitalized in an ICU on the opposite side of the country. Due to Covid restrictions, the family was unable to visit him. While driving through the desert to her sister’s residence in Las Vegas, Broder felt a desire to escape, similar to her protagonist, which inspired her to write her semi-autobiographical fiction. Working on the book provided Broder with a sense of connection to her father that she had been denied due to Covid.
She crafted it as a tribute. Unlike The Pisces and 2020’s Milk Fed, which were composed through dictation, she aimed for it to have a poetic quality from the start – striving for a high level of finesse. After completing each chapter, she meticulously edited it, scrutinizing each sentence, with the goal of making each section shine like a diamond.
In May 2021, her father passed away and Broder spent another year working on Death Valley. She reflects, “Throughout that time, I had a sense of moving forward with him despite his absence. However, when I completed the book and shared it with my agent, the realization hit me that he was truly gone.”
Despite these circumstances, Death Valley can be incredibly humorous. Although the main character encounters few individuals in the desert, her internal thoughts are accompanied by a diverse group including Reddit commentators, eccentric audiobook narrators, and rocks personified. Broder gained recognition as the unidentified writer behind the X account (previously known as Twitter) So Sad Today, which humorously depicted the profound isolation of contemporary society.
While Death Valley doesn’t specifically focus on the internet like other recent novels aimed at millennials, it does address the impact of social media and how it can simultaneously create stress, comfort, and absurdity. Author Broder acknowledges that most people have a strong connection with the internet, but she also finds humor in the way people communicate on platforms like Reddit. She notes that people tend to post when they are struggling and looking for answers, rather than only sharing positive experiences. Broder enjoys writing with a lighthearted tone and saw potential for entertainment in exploring Reddit within her novel.
Broder’s connection to X is multi-faceted. She claims that the website “lost its appeal about five years ago, well before ‘the musking’ happened” – referring to its acquisition by Elon Musk. She explains, “What I appreciated about Twitter was that it was an odd place where you could become buddies with a bat avatar or a moose on roller skates. And you wouldn’t have a clue who this person was, but you would eagerly anticipate their strange tweets every day.” However, over the past five years, there has been a shift towards proving points, less experimentation, and more certainty. Broder’s feed no longer feels like a peculiar little community of poetry and humor. It has become a less explicitly experimental, more definitive mishmash of chaos.
However, Twitter (warning of spoilers) offers a clever moment in Death Valley where the narrator checks the app and finds out a competing author has published a book about a woman whose father becomes a Montezuma cypress tree. This scene was inspired by Broder’s realization that Sheila Heti had written a novel called “Pure Colour” about a woman whose father is reborn as a leaf.
Broder expresses his admiration for Sheila Heti and Ottessa Moshfegh, two contemporary writers whose talent and lack of online presence make him envious. Upon hearing an announcement related to these writers, Broder feels defeated and fears for his own book. He confides in his best friend, who suggests incorporating it into his novel.
Broder has conflicting emotions about the publication of Death Valley due to its conception. Despite achieving every author’s dream of publishing a book, she is not as ecstatic as she was with her previous works Milk Fed and The Pisces. However, she still considers it to be her favorite and is proud and grateful that it is now available to the world.