Melissa Broder's Death Valley: See the cover and read an exclusive excerpt
She works in many mediums, but much like pornography, you know a Melissa Broder book when you read it. Across numerous essays, two novels, and five collections poetry (also: a famed Twitter account and a podcast), the Pennsylvania native has made a one-woman industry out of her sardonic, brutally honest, and often surreal musings.
Her 2018 fiction debut, The Pisces, is now being made into a movie by Obvious Child director Gillian Robespierre starring The Crown's Claire Foy, and her most recent, 2021's Milk Fed, landed on multiple year-end best lists, including EW's.
Her latest, though, is another kind of enterprise. "Death Valley is a trip through the desert of grief, particularly anticipatory grief, and the rich oases we may find in that arid internal landscape," Broder tells EW. "The novel was born out of my father's six-month stay in the ICU prior to his death, and my inability to escape the experience of being human on a stretch of Highway 15 between Los Angeles and Las Vegas."
Below, the cover reveal and an exclusive excerpt for Death Valley, due in bookstores Oct. 24.
Excerpt from Death Valley, by Melissa Broder
I don't recommend taking a bath in a Best Western tub. Many feet have been here. Personally, I'm not afraid of germs, as I feel I've been inoculated by eating a lot of unwashed fruit, but I wouldn't advise others to do the same.
This is probably another way that I isolate myself from my fellow man: by pretending the laws of nature don't apply to me. It's like how I pretend to be at peace with the prospect of my eventual death (though not at peace with the dying process). But when I really think about it, I'm probably not okay with either.
It's only April, but the weather app on my phone says ninety-six degrees. I dress in shorts and a clean T-shirt, layering on my father's army jacket as a protective barrier against any air-conditioning I will encounter. Then I head out to find food.
In the lobby, I cast a quick glimpse over at the front desk and see that Jethra and Zip are both on duty. Zip is looking at his phone, but Jethra says hello to me, so I wave, and then I say, "Just going out for a hike!"
I don't know why I lie like this. I guess I want to seem like a woman who "does things."
"Mojave or Death Valley?" she asks.
Since I'm not actually going hiking, I don't know how to respond.
"Dunno," I say. "Just gonna see where the morning takes me!"
It's two p.m.
"Let me show you nice, easy trail close by," says Jethra.
She pulls out a piece of paper and draws on it a little map (Best Western is not the kind of place where they have maps on hand).
"Go east on highway, then north," she says, using her nail as a vector. "Will take you ten minutes."
"Twenty," says Zip, looking up from his phone for the first time.
I ignore Zip and thank Jethra directly, then head out to the car. When I step outside, the desert heat hits me like a weighted blanket. The sun is white and blazing. There's no breeze.
My car is a furnace, but at least it starts. In the console I find the remainder of yesterday's beef jerky, cooked warm, plus a hot can of Red Bull Sugar Free. Switching on the AC, I eat and drink. Then I pull out of the parking lot.
It's not until I'm a few miles down the highway that it dawns on me I'm following Jethra's map. I put on the radio and listen to a commercial for Applebee's, then the opening chords to Martha and the Vandellas' "Nowhere to Run." Quickly, I turn the radio off. This is my father's music, and it hurts too much.
I don't always avoid oldies. Sometimes I'll play his favorites on repeat — Bobby Freeman's "Do You Wanna Dance" or Ritchie Valens's "Come On, Let's Go" — like pushing a wound. One night during Unconsciousness One, I watched the Young Rascals perform "Good Lovin'" on Ed Sullivan twenty-eight times. But I can only listen intentionally, never accidentally or casually, because the music gives me an emotional hangover.
It's the same feeling I get when I wake up from a dream that I've fallen in love with someone beautiful, only to discover that the person isn't there. My love for my father isn't romantic. But the longing has the same bereft quality. Euphoric dreams leave a question hanging in the air — the question of: Is that all we get?
My father's music leaves behind a similar question, only the question concerns his life: Is that all he gets?
Outside my window, the highway divider is strewn with trash: beer cans, a busted tire, a crumpled bedsheet, a pair of underwear (did somebody have sex on the highway?). Puffs of dry brush, like fuzzy clown wigs, grow miraculously out of cracks in the cement. They must really want to live. Or maybe I'm projecting that.
When I try to strip away my projections, I'm not left with much. I have an abundance of words for what goes on inside my brain, but they fall short when conveying nature. It's hard to describe what is. How many times can you use the word arid?
But as I continue east, the landscape grows more lush. Craggy Joshua trees come howling out of the earth. There's a bounty of palm-looking things (yucca, maybe?), and brightly living shrubs in all shades of green: sea, sage, moss, chartreuse. I wish that I could drink the beauty. The emptiness is still inside me.
I search my phone for a distracting audiobook — anything but Sweet Thursday by John Steinbeck. Since the accident, I read all my father's favorite writers. Words don't devastate me like music, and I love inhabiting the same sentences across space and time, thinking about how he has been here. Unfortunately, the audio reader of Sweet Thursday keeps making a melancholic ohhhh sound, crooning the words "looonesome looonesome" over and over like a dirge. I can't handle a melancholic ohhhh right now.
I put on a new book, written by a psychic about communicating with the dead. It's my third book on grief, death, and dying since I went on the r/deathanddying subreddit and asked: Is it weird that I'm already mourning my father even though he's still alive? and a user named pickleballsarah responded: NO. It's called anticipatory grief and it's normal. LEAN IN!!!
I kicked off my literary grief tour with a memoir by a Buddhist psychologist about his father's passing. The Buddhist psychologist mostly described how angry he felt — and how surprised he was to feel angry.
I found it strange that the Buddhist psychologist was surprised. Anger seems like a grief basic. But even more strange was the realization that I didn't feel angry. I still don't feel angry, though I wish I did, because anger seems preferable to what I've been feeling — namely fear: that the grief will paralyze me, that I'm doing something wrong, that I'll let people down, that I'm not okay. Maybe I don't have the self-esteem to feel angry.
The next book I read was a novel, described as the tale of a woman "unraveling" after the death of her wife. All I could think was, Who unravels this neatly? There was no mention of fear. Zero messes or catharses. If a feeling did surface, it was an elegant dribble, pristine, assonant. Was this really the inside of a person's head? I've been more unraveled by a yeast infection.
It was clear that the author had never, herself, unraveled. Also, she seemed to disapprove of humor in any form, which was another problem, because how could a person unravel so humorlessly and not die? If I saw no humor in my unraveling, I'd have been dead long ago.
The audiobook about communicating with the dead is already better than the novel was. The psychic narrates it herself, and I like her accent: New Jersey-y, real, like having Carmela Soprano for a grief counselor.
"Listen," she says. "Your dead loved ones are waiting to talk to you. So what's the holdup? Come on already! You don't need me or any other clairvoyant. You can talk to them right now! All you have to do is change your dial. Tune in to their frequency. And by 'tune in,' I mean believe!"
I like this self-starter attitude: Occult DIY. Necromantic independence. Teach a girl to fish, Carmela.
"Start asking for signs," says Carmela. "Say, 'Send me a sign to let me know you're with me.' Some of the more common signs that people report are butterflies, pennies, feathers. But don't be afraid to be specific, to ask for a specific sign. Cultivate a spirit language. Let them impress you."
I turn off the highway and head north, wondering what my father's spirit language will be. I pass a boarded-up hamburger stand and a curio shop; a gas station with only two tanks; a faded billboard for Marlboro cigarettes. Reds. My father's brand. Atop the billboard, a lone bird is perched: something shiny and black, with a butter-yellow underbelly. An oriole? The bird's face and head are black, but splashed across its dark beak is another small patch of yellow — like a little mustache. Mustache oriole! A sign? But my father isn't dead. It's not him.
"I had a client whose daughter passed in childhood," says Carmela. "During our first session, she asked her daughter to send her a green apple. One green apple. An hour later I get a phone call. 'You're never going to believe this,' says my client. 'I'm at Ikea, in the kitchen section, and what do I see? A bowl of green apples! The apples are plastic, but I know it's her! She's here!'"
I can't believe this is supposed to be an encouraging story. It's terrible. A bowl of fake apples. That's all the woman has left of her daughter: a bowl of fake apples at Ikea?
"Now my client asks her daughter for apples every day," says Carmela. "She sees them everywhere! I want you to do this. Start asking for signs every day! You should be in constant communication!"
My father, living or dead, does not want to be in constant communication with anyone. There's no way I could ask him for a sign every day. What, he's trying to rest in peace, and I'm nagging him for fruit? Fruit and eternal connection? I'll definitely annoy his spirit.
If my father's spirit wants to talk to me from the afterworld, then his spirit will have to be the one that reaches out. I'm too insecure to ask anything of the dead.