No matter the extent to which we explore our planet and the cosmos surrounding it, the self will always be the final frontier. Modern life may offer myriad distractions and depressants, but there’s no escaping one’s interiority. Ralph Waldo Emerson was aware of this when he wrote Self Reliance, reflecting on the fact that no matter where in the world he traveled, “there beside me is the stern fact, the sad self, unrelenting, identical, that I fled from… I affect to be intoxicated with sights and suggestions, but I am not intoxicated. My giant goes with me wherever I go.”
Over 180 years since Emerson’s essay, Melissa Broder’s newest novel, Death Valley, opens with an unnamed narrator attempting to escape her own giant. As she sits on the public toilet in a Circle K gas station halfway between Los Angeles and the unnamed desert town where she’s headed, she tries meditating using a Kierkegaard quote: “Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.” The irony of the situation is not lost on her. “I realized that I was doing the exact opposite of what the quote suggested,” she acknowledges, “trying to solve a problem, the problem of me and my mood, rather than just experiencing it. But how do you just experience things?”
Certainly, our heroine has a lot to experience over the course of Death Valley. Time and time again, she finds herself in the delightful and surreal situations that are characteristic of Broder’s oeuvre. But even when the novel tips into the mystical — a collection of talking rocks, a giant heroic bird, what may or may not be a telepathic fluffle of rabbits — Broder keeps readers grounded in the more mundane details of the narrator’s trip. The two front-desk employees she meets at a Best Western hotel and an ongoing struggle with her mother about returning a pair of sweatpants she bought on Amazon are painted with comically painstaking precision. Still, nothing shakes the feeling of emptiness that accompanies the narrator when she first arrives in the desert.
Ostensibly undertaken to help her finish writing a scene for her novel, the narrator’s journey out of LA and into Death Valley is also a reaction to her father’s declining health. He is drifting in and out of consciousness in an ICU. In an attempt to find momentary respite from her situation and the tangled emotions surrounding it, she takes the advice of the Best Western employees and embarks on a hike. This is how she discovers an inexplicable magical cactus.
As central a figure as the cactus is to Death Valley, I’ll be brief here — it would be tantamount to a crime for me to rob readers of the first-hand experience of reading one of the most sublimely bizarre scenes I’ve ever encountered. Still, it would be impossible to ignore the sexual undertones in Broder’s description of the cut through which she enters the massive cactus. (“I slide my finger deeper in. It’s slimy in there, cool and wet… Gently, I glide my finger up and down the length of the long injury, feeling the cactus give.”) That – coupled with the juxtaposition of apparitions of the narrator’s father and husband – may be the makings of a Freudian field day. But for Broder, wildly imaginative scenes like this come as naturally as the desert breeze.
Just as the narrator’s inciting experience with the cactus alchemizes her terrors into a tangible phenomenon, the narrative begins to evolve, becoming a classic tale of survival. After a few wrong turns on the trail, our narrator realizes too late that she is alone in the desert with hardly any food or water, no cell service, and without having told anyone where she is. As archetypical as the man-versus-nature plot may be, Broder’s cleverly allegorical use of the trope throws many of Death Valley‘s themes into sharp relief.
The use of the desert itself as a metaphor for grief is particularly effective. As our narrator is consumed with the fear that her father has died in her absence, the merciless extremes of the desert’s scorching hot days and brutally frigid nights underscore the oscillation between the jumbled emotions that accompany the loss of a loved one. That the stakes couldn’t be higher feels appropriate rather than melodramatic, considering the narrator’s emotional state. If she can’t actually die of a broken heart, she can certainly be left for dead in the harsh, unforgiving landscape of the desert.
The complete isolation of the environment also forces the narrator to tap into self-reliance. Surely the individualistic messagings of a capitalistic society that you can pull yourself up by your bootstraps is very much part of the same ideology destroying the landscapes Broder describes so richly (“a beautiful, hot lava kind of sunset: orange and purple clouds; the mountains cloaked in quiet shadow; the sun a burning fruit on the horizon altar”), but Broder is not suggesting such an isolationist philosophy. Certainly, our heroine does not escape her predicament without the aid of some of the most whimsical — and, as a result, wonderful — deus ex machinas I’ve ever come across in a novel. The lengths she takes to preserve her own life, including the deliciously symbolic rendering of her crawling across the desert on her hands and knees after an ankle injury, suggests a certain magic in discovering reserves of strength more powerful than one imagines until forced to discover them in a state of emergency.
Some readers may find the narrator’s constant preoccupation with her own thoughts and feelings, and the New Age-Instagram-infographic type jargon used to render it, somewhat grating. However, this critic is not that reader: I thought the heroine’s narrative voice was a jarringly accurate portrayal of an existential crisis often exacerbated by our world’s unrelenting digital connectedness. Broder’s quality of being “terminally online”, as some would say, lends Death Valley an air of immediacy that grounds even its most fantastical moments in poignant emotional realism.
Through her previous novels, The Pisces (2018) and Milk Fed (2021), Broder has already established herself as one of the predominant magical realists working in fiction today. Now, with Death Valley, Broder offers her most ambitious project to date; even the title itself demonstrates that there’s more at risk than ever before. Ultimately, Death Valley is a riotous victory. Somehow, Broder has illuminated a tale of grief and loss with her characteristic wit and insight. The result is as dazzlingly brilliant as a desert sunset.