Review of “Death Valley” by Melissa Broder – Surrealism Takes a Bite
Melissa Broder’s third novel, Death Valley, is often described as surreal, with an abundance of fantastical elements. However, it’s important to also recognize the realistic aspects and well-crafted world building that lay the foundation for the story. Set in the desert, it follows a Los Angeles writer who seeks solace and creative inspiration while her father fights for his life after a car accident. Death looms over the protagonist’s mind, filling her thoughts with dark, obsessive, and self-centered musings. Hoping for a change in perspective, she immerses herself in the vast desert landscape and stays at a Best Western motel, while also facing her father’s impending death and her husband’s mysterious chronic illness (which has taken a toll on their marriage as he has seen 27 doctors in nine years).
“I selected this desert town as the location for my escape because it serves as the fictional home of a beloved cartoon bighorn sheep from my childhood, which also captivated my father. The protagonist’s voice carries a light, airy quality as she anticipates the otherworldliness of her upcoming adventure. One of the remarkable aspects of Death Valley is Broder’s skill in tracing her heroine’s emotional vulnerabilities and idiosyncrasies in a way that allows her readers to feel connected to her journey. We eagerly await revelations as the protagonist embarks on her pilgrimage through the harsh expanse of the desert, armed with humor, wit, and fond memories of happier days as her survival tools.”
“My check-in process at Best Western was efficient and met my expectations, but what truly stood out was the warm and comforting demeanor of Jethra, the woman at the front desk. Her presence was refreshing and inviting, without feeling suffocating. I couldn’t help but be drawn to her, especially since she reminded me of a ripe tomato. The interaction was comical, with clever wordplay referencing the hotel’s popular blueberry muffins. The main character of Broder’s story is a recovering addict, and her past addiction to sex leads her to feel attracted to both Jethra and Zip, a knowledgeable front desk clerk with a smug attitude and a passion for cacti. Jethra is the one who informs her about a nearby hiking trail.”
Death Valley has three distinct landscapes: the desert, the realm of technology, and the human heart. The protagonist frequently communicates with her father, who is hospitalized, and her sick husband in their Los Angeles apartment through phone calls and Facetime sessions. It’s both heartbreaking and amusing to witness her struggles in communicating openly and honestly with these men, as well as her superstitious mother who has a strong personality.
However, emotions need a place to go, and in this story they combine with the barren desert scenery. During her initial excursion, the main character stumbles upon a large, enigmatic cactus with a crevice down the middle. Before she knows it, she is climbing inside and coming face to face with her father as a youngster and later as a teenager. These moments have a hallucinogenic quality, with the cactus acting as a spiritual retreat that reveals memories of the past instead of prophesizing the future.
Both Jethra and Zip doubt the protagonist’s description of the towering cactus. However, she is an adventurer and a seeker, and she will encounter even more intense magical experiences with other loved ones. The desert has a unique allure that inspires writers to use its varied landscape, from desolate to verdant, as a canvas for their imagination. At times, I was reminded of Joan Didion’s White Album, specifically her essay “James Pike, American,” which tells the story of a theologian who wandered into the Judean desert with his third wife and two cans of Coke, only to meet his demise. It is a well-known fact that humans can quickly perish in the desert. In Death Valley, a person without water can die in just 14 hours.
In this story, Broder presents a main character who converses with nature and receives responses. The majority of this surreal story occurs in a desert setting. Broder utilizes all of her skills to drive the narrative forward and maintain its pace, but at times, readers may struggle to suspend their disbelief. The depth and wit of the story may also diminish in the hazy landscape, which could be intentional.
Is it possible that the extreme effects of global warming, which we are experiencing directly, will demand a different approach from writers who incorporate nature into their work? It is currently too early to tell. However, Broder has the benefit of delving into the depths of human emotions and thoughts – love, fear, worry, addiction, mortality – and reflecting them back to us. She cleverly presents us with a main character who is optimistic rather than powerless, and her writing keeps us intrigued about what challenges she will face next.