by Blake Butler.
Archway, 320 pp., £14, December 2023, 978 1 64823 037 0
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Molly Brodak​  stood at the side of my bed, unscrolling her long life like a nightgown. Nearly forty years was long. She had died on 8 March 2020, and now her husband, the novelist Blake Butler, had written a book about her. I had just spent the night reading it on my phone, squinting at the long scroll turned sideways until one of the headaches started. They were the geniuses of headaches. There was generally no pain, but you walked into a surrounding black and a kind of schiller lit within you, a flash out of the ordinary. You were an apparition in some far grotto, rippling with rays. Even to call them headaches was a lyricism. You would feel, in the mirror, that your face did not belong to you. Or looking down the length of the bed, that your foot was too far away. Or that you had entered other people’s realities, rooms, that they were standing by the side of your bed, cool and silver, a column.

Molly stood, her platinum hair hanging down. Before she took her own life, I had sensed something coming: a disturbance in her social media posts. She was shaking with what was happening, like animals before the earthquake. Some people are plugged into the circuit that way. They are not mad, they are crackling with the charge in the air. Should I mute her? I had wondered, but never did. We knew each other, had known each other, at a time when we were reaching past our fingertips and towards our own names. Before we ever met we were published in the same places. But she had arrived earlier than the rest of us, so it seemed back then. ‘Molly Brodak: Poet and Memoirist of Her Father’s Crimes’, as the New York Times would put it in the headline of her obituary. Why are you more likely to be remembered as a memoirist of your father’s crimes than as a poet? Why is it easier to appear on The Great American Baking Show, as Molly did in 2017, than it is to get people to read your work when you are alive? I had once written a poem for her online magazine about fucking Lumière, the living candelabra from Beauty and the Beast. The drip of wax. Extinguishing his little candles in me with a hiss.

She would still like a picture of a geode if I posted it, because that’s what she loved too, grains of sugar in the earth. She would like a picture of my cats, and I would like a picture of her chickens, as if they wouldn’t chase each other in the real world. I would like a picture of her and Blake, high on LSD and grinning, sitting in the studio audience of a Dr Phil taping. Perhaps we respected each other as people who could not be close to others. She had a Master List of Things I Like and Might Write About:

Interesting rocks
What’s under the ground

Most of them, in the end, were crossed out. ‘Everything tastes weird lately,’ she wrote, in one of her final diary entries, ‘like aspirin.’ And then: ‘I swear someone really could save my life right now.’

My husband, Jason, and I were in the vet’s office when we learned that Molly had died. Seafoam green walls. Our cat Miette was trembling on the steel table between us; she hadn’t been able to keep any food down for days and a chill air seemed to come off her in curves. We thought she was dying and maybe she was. The sentence fell through me, I saw it: ‘My partner Molly Brodak passed away yesterday. I don’t know how else to tell it.’ I lifted my head from my phone. The trembling entered the room more generally. Molly is dead, I said, just as someone knocked on the door.

When we got home, I arranged a piece of coral from Mexico and a crystal egg on the cover of her first poetry book – seafoam green – and took a picture. That seemed to be the only thing I could do. The piece of coral I had picked up because it had the same lax bend in it as a child’s arm; I liked to hold it. I thought Molly would like it too. I sought out the sentence again: ‘My partner Molly Brodak passed away yesterday. I don’t know how else to tell it.’ Blake’s avatar was of him emerging as a sort of wedge from the darkness, with his chin thrust up. I felt a kind of reverberating in a field. I wrote to him, something crazy about how she always seemed to shine silver. I began to see a church in Atlanta, where a funeral would happen, and we were set to make the four-hour drive from Savannah – until all at once I took to my bed, the chill air coming off me in curves now too. Molly had given us her bed to sleep in once when we visited; I climbed in and pulled the covers over me. Her book, where the arrangement rested, was called A Little Middle of the Night.

I do not know why she was so present to me in the days and weeks of illness that followed. Because I was sick, I thought maybe she was sick too. Everything tastes like aspirin. In my dreams we were sitting at 24-hour diners with plates of French fries between us, and mirrors along the walls. I was talking to Blake about Nabokov – telling him to read Ada, instead of the one I really loved, Pnin, with its almost-cracking of the beautiful glass bowl. The only other person who appeared to me at this time was my niece, Lena, who came to me as a large, velvet, electric blue-black stingray, slowly waving at me the word HELLO. After that I never felt her again, not in my arms. It was like a line of gasoline went up and was gone.

Over the next two years I experienced strange spasms of writing about Molly, which never came to anything. Often I would be seized by her before storms, as if she were a positive charge high up in the atmosphere, while I remained negatively charged below. Pages and pages in some strange scarlet pen – almost unreadable later – about colour and light and uprightness. Boatneck shirts. The upstairs room – had it been at AWP? – where she cracked open to reveal the amethysts of college basketball stats. You do walk through the world with some people. You don’t know anything about them, but you walk through the world; if they die, you do not get used to it. She was tied to a time of such ineluctable striving. Her list of books she hated – I liked them all.

Towards the beginning of Molly, Blake writes: ‘Even the most basic facts, as Molly once described them, “are easy to say; I say them all the time. They leave me out.”’ He goes on to list them:

– Born in Rochester, Michigan on 29 March 1980.

– Parents divorced twice; father kept a secret family and went to prison twice for robbing banks.

– Married her first husband, Matthew Porter, 17 May 2008. Later divorced.

– Won the 2010 Iowa Poetry Prize for her grad thesis, A Little Middle of the Night.

– Published Bandit: A Daughter’s Memoir with Grove Atlantic (2016).

– Married me 11 May 2017.

– Founded her own baking business, Kookie House Cakes and Treats.

– Took her own life in Atlanta, Georgia on 8 March 2020.

I read an early draft of Bandit, Molly’s account of growing up as the daughter of a bank robber, back when writers were being forced to get pre-blurbs before a book could even be submitted. I was working on my own memoir, Priestdaddy, at the same time. The indignity of Molly having to request a pre-blurb stays with me. I think it embarrassed us both, as did the actual act of writing about our families, which we considered separate from the real work: poetry. It was easy to see why she had asked – we both had that special ‘my dad is a psycho’ glow. But where I had inherited pure indiscretion, she had inherited the secret life. If you have been born into a secret life maybe you will always have one. It is like having the wardrobe you can walk all the way through, parting layers with your hands until you are unencumbered, free. Stolen clothes. Getaway cars, police sirens. It’s so much WORK to have a secret life. But work is what she loved.

There are kinds of neglect that cannot be made up for later. I see Molly alone in her yellow bathing suit in Cancún, where her father had taken her on one of his sprees. Wearing ‘the only hat I owned as a child, a black-and-neon tropical print baseball hat I am certain came from a Wendy’s Kids’ Meal’. There are summers that press their thumbprints in us hard – read the last poem that Molly wrote, ‘Camp’, about the Amish farm in Pennsylvania where she was sent when she was eleven. And there are lies that bond more strongly than love. Molly’s mother told her they were her father’s secret family when she was about fourteen and he was already in prison.

‘I hold out hope that he will drop his,’ Molly wrote of her father’s ‘deceptive masks’. ‘I wouldn’t still be thinking about him if I didn’t believe there was something true under his lies.’ Throughout Bandit there is the tenderest, wildest hope that what her father has done has not made him untouchable, not to her, not to us – that a person cannot travel beyond the pale. She visits him in jail, still hoping, buys him jalapeño cheese curls from the commissary. She knows that thinking about her father will not solve him. But there is still a holy discipline in thinking. It is part of our work here. ‘I believe the truth about her father died with her,’ Blake wrote in an essay published nine months after her death. The truth under his lies was the fact of him, which Molly kept close to her and never turned away from. From Bandit:

I see you, Dad.

You think no one can see you, as if the lights on you are out.

You know, you’re not wrong: the lights are out on all of us. We go on in our dark fogs. Unless someone else turns to look your way and lights the light.

Three years​  after Molly died, I had a galley of Blake’s memoir in my hand. Should I have? I had no real idea of what it might contain, and no longer had any sense of tawdriness connected with death. (‘I can’t believe they had an open casket,’ my aunt had said at my niece’s funeral, as if it could be a burden on us to see her.) The reading was like falling, into a level that hovered just below my bed. A horizontal experience. Into the secret life that was Molly’s. I was supposed to be writing something about the book, but everything sounded mad: a document you might find in someone’s papers after their death. I only am escaped alone to tell thee. The book begins at the end of language, someone at a bombsite or in a burned-out church, the words and phrases jarred out of their places, as if they too had heard the gunshot and started running; as if the ripples of the act, the derangement in the air, had entered into English itself. Or Blake’s breath, running to find her in the field, past the grown-together pair of trees Molly said might be them in their old age. That is the way that it is. Why should words be available when he has for so long stored them in her?

‘Don’t go down there to see it,’ she told Blake, in the note that she taped over the spyhole of their door, but she must have known he would. ‘Please make art for me,’ she told him, too. ‘I will read it all.’

The unutterable clears when Blake begins to describe Molly alive. We leave the field where she took her own life, but I still see it, hovering in my mind next to her old apartment. In my notebook, I followed along, picking up things here and there. That was like her, I would think, and that, and that. Her exacting standards. ‘She’d get super pissed when I’d say I didn’t believe we landed on the moon, for instance, no matter how obviously I was only kidding.’ Or the description of her tender poise, which seemed to be located at the base of her neck. It is weird to have such a strong sense of Molly’s body still, somewhere in Atlanta like a peach tree.

What was the first time? I asked Jason. The beginning of what I think of as the mega-night, racing forward like a vehicle, lined with neon like a chrome diner. ‘That was when she invited you to read at Emory, and you had been throwing up clams the whole previous night, and we had driven up from Tallahassee with you throwing up clams at the rest stops, and that girl in her department wrote a really mean anonymous review afterwards that talked about your insanely red eyes.’ Ah. This was in the days of alt-lit, in the days when we were full of what the writer Gert Hofmann called ‘book courage’, and people got paid in copies and were glad, and they wouldn’t find out terrible things about each other till later.

‘OK, and the next night,’ I asked, ‘and the next?’ When did I read at the art gallery in front of the domestic violence exhibit? When did we eat pizza in Druid Hills? When did they drink with us downstairs at the sex hotel with jungle robes, with the window in the shower that looked out across the bed? When was the night you spoke to Molly? ‘OK,’ he says – I store things in him – ‘that was at the bar, where you and Blake were playing darts, and you hit a perfect bullseye and both of you were bouncing off the walls, going crazy. And I was sitting at the table with Molly and she was telling me about everything, her brain tumour, how she feared she was old. Molly, I said, I think we’re the same age. She looked back at you and Blake with some anxiety, maybe feeling left out, or trying to sense if there was some line between you, then decided it was OK.’ ‘And then after that she would sometimes give you a look of amusement,’ the same one, I think, she gave Blake when we went to the Clermont Lounge and he fell into a private rapture with one of the strippers, tilting his head up to her and lifting his drink to his mouth. Maybe Molly wanted to bounce off the walls herself, but she remained in her tender poise, her braced posture. You can collect wildflower specimens, learn everything there is to know about alluvial flood plains, write poetry; but you cannot break out of the body that your history, your family – your father – give you. And maybe that place where you learn those things is the real secret life, where you collect your real self, piece by piece. ‘Maybe she had good reason,’ Jason said. ‘I thought that she was troubled, that something was wrong.’

‘She could lay for hours,’ Blake recalls in Molly, ‘typing surrounded by books and snacks and pillows with the lights off. I never understood how she could write that way until after she was gone and I no longer had the will to sit up straight.’ The cover of the book is a picture of Molly posing in a pale dress behind a glass-paned door. The view is from the bed, a view from her own best mind, propped up on the pillows. If she put someone else there, could they really see her? Working in bed is like floating in water, descending through clear crystal planes; maybe the body feels itself to be in a rectangle and somehow translates that to paper. She had been headless, she wrote in Bandit, after surgery for a brain tumour in her early twenties, when her original self might have wanted to be bodiless. Still, ‘I felt the inert power in objecthood, headlessness,’ she says. ‘It is hard to explain to anyone who hasn’t been headless. It’s quite freeing. My legs had voices. No: my calves, my ankles, my thighs, my feet all had voices. I lived in them. I saw the world out of my ankles. What does the world look like out of one’s ankles? It looks a little better, honestly.’

She did worry, later, that the tumour was coming back. She slid an MRI of her brain across the table to him, the first time she and Blake met – after he picked her up, for somewhat unclear reasons, from jail. ‘For family history I said none/and she wrote neon,’ she wrote in a poem about the surgery called ‘Ought’.

The tumour is slow –
many millimetres, scallop-edged! Imagine: some people

do not want to live.

Who assigns​  our lots? What randomiser in the universe, what roll inside the cells? ‘One afternoon, from what seemed out of nowhere,’ Blake writes, ‘Molly offered me a gift – a tiny, battered pale blue on dark blue patterned Avon box with a gold bottom and two textured stickers of fluffy cats with long whiskers stuck to the lid. Inside, a tuft of stuffing on which sat two ivory dice small as the tip of a pinkie.’ She had carried it around since she was a child and wanted him to have it:

It felt like being let into a dim grey room with many doors, behind most of which I still had no idea besides the smallest sounds that might leak through – a hum of bees, maybe; the silent glint of sunlight against some sea; the low, slow beating of a heart; a little signal sent from somewhere secret laced inside her, just a girl. Sometimes when I’m uncertain what to do, I take the dice out and roll them, read the numbers. Just now: two, one.

The dice – we will need them – are a place past meaning. Roll them, but like Molly, they are a living spout of recombination; you will never come to the end.

The thing that seemed most like her, somehow, was J’zargo from the video game Skyrim. Blake describes him in the book:

J’zargo, a feline-like sidekick character that would follow her own character around, doing her bidding, became her favourite part about the game. She loved to dress him up in magic armour, give him the best weapons. ‘J’zargo only has so much room to carry things,’ he’d repeat, when she tried to load him up too much; a line I’d borrow from him as a joke. If J’zargo died in combat, she’d wail and reset the game, go back to the last saved file he was alive in. She’d align his stance so he would stare out through the screen into her eyes. Her husband, she would call him, despite being formally married to another more man-like character in a hometown part of the game.

I can picture J’zargo perfectly because this is what Jason was doing when both of us were delirious: I was dreaming of Molly, he was building elaborate cat characters in Skyrim.

One afternoon, she decided she’d played the game for the last time. She led J’zargo to a river, at digital twilight, and took back all the objects she’d equipped him with, one by one. Using the menu for dialogue between them, she told him she no longer required his services, so he should leave, and following the software, he complied. She stood at the river for a while then openly weeping, strangely touched, if also laughing at herself for getting so worked up. She asked me not to speak, and then to leave the room. She never played the game again from that day forth.

Gradually the things I read in Molly seemed less and less like her. Fistfights, possibly fabricated gunmen. The shape of her face changing as she says: ‘This is a perfect example of why I say you have little respect for me …’ When I read this, I think, it’s someone else saying that, some other voice. Blake calls it Other Molly at the same time as I think Not Molly. The image of her after his mother’s funeral, wordlessly decorating cookies, someone’s kindness port malfunctioning. Yet directing everyone, at the funeral itself, to go see his mother’s quilts. It was ‘the kind of tribute she would never have offered elsewhere, if only under the light of the one thing she continuously revered: work’.

‘The world does not yet exist which would have suited her energies,’ I wrote in my notebook. ‘As a thief I wasn’t wasted,’ she almost seems to respond, in a poem called ‘Post Glacier’. ‘As a cheat I wasn’t wasted. As a liar I was wasted least of all.’

I had to stop here, surrounded by her on all sides, so to distract myself I picked up The Surrender, an anal sex memoir by the ballerina Toni Bentley. I have no explanation for any part of this. But just as I had gone too far into the apartment with Molly, into the green of her coat and the icing on her cupcakes, so I went into the weird plush sanctum where the ballerina was having anal sex. Red pillows, living candelabras, the hiss and drip of wax. Mostly what I remember interacting with was Molly’s sense of humour – dark, twisted, dry – and her surprises. Jokes (crossed out) were on her list of things she could write about. Well, let Anallerina be one of them too.

When​  I began reading Molly again in the morning, something was wrong. The rest of the book flashed out in phrases, Blake’s and Molly’s, mixed together:

I belong unassembled.

Images of planets from the right distance, this one too.

No matter what you say or do, we skulls will see you underground.

Why don’t more people care who their loved ones really are? Why should it take a death to know a life?

A fling with a student she’d hooked up with a couple weeks after our wedding.

Not only one student, but several, some over spans of years.

I logged out of her accounts, closed her computer.

Should I be allowed to make this said?

She could only keep the window open for so long, she said.

Good job with the demon. Instant one stuff.

Please show me your new face.

There’s nothing after death, and I will see you there.

I will read it all.

Should I be allowed to make this said? Holes in our phones go down oddly deep, maybe for everyone. We are leading strange visual lives in labyrinths underground. Whether to leave the world is one question; what to leave behind is another. Molly, more than anyone else, understood there would be a book called Molly; what did she want that book to contain? ‘I know a liar wants to be known,’ she had written in Bandit. ‘I know a criminal wants to be caught, because it is the only way of being known. I think a person who feels mortality sidling up wants to be known.’

The night I finished Blake’s memoir, I was afraid of her – you didn’t really do that, Molly? – and of what she had done, what she had hidden. Of Other Molly, of Not Molly, unscrolling her long life like a nightgown. I saw her students; my heart had stopped at that paragraph. You didn’t really do that? The next night the Molly of the Zone came to me, and I was not afraid any more.

‘It wasn’t just her bed,’ Jason said. ‘She left us the whole apartment, we fed and watered the cat. I felt Beans walking over me in the middle of the night.’ Then I do, I do remember. The whole place, so supposedly full of secrets, left open to us to find anything – though all I would ever have looked at were the bookshelves. ‘You don’t remember her kitchen, with the cubbies of mismatched dishes?’

It’s not a great claim, to have slept in someone’s bed. To spend a long mega-night with them, and then forget to think of them when they are not in immediate view. People did not die for me, not till lately, they just went out of town. All my ex-grandmothers living next to one another, exchanging cookie recipes, and me with no need to weep – but then I saw it, it really happened. The presences, not absences, entered the room and stood in a tall ring around, with their collections of hard irreconcilable facts – the ones about them and the ones they loved, jumbled together in cairns. Those two years when I was trying to write about her uprightness, what I was really trying to write about was presence, which has nothing to do with goodness at all. It is the straightness that stands in a room with you and somehow does not fall.

Blake’s hundred fingers in the last photo of them, at an art gallery, reflected in a purposely shattered mirror. Her hundred little smiles – he calls them smirks – and a black star in the middle of her neck.

It does not seem we should be able to see Molly there in her field, but these things happen out in the world. He is telling us that. His wish: that we should look upon her face, see even the fly. Hear what he hears in the firework, now. Go into Dante’s dark wood, and experience language as useless, in him. Molly on her back, in her green coat. Blake on his knees, calling for her and his mother. Slapping his face where the bee landed – something just stung me, what the fuck – and why isn’t she there so he can tell her and they can laugh.

‘In the end,’ he writes, ‘I don’t know what she owes anybody.’ In the final third of the book, she can appear to him, she can speak to him, because we are in a place far beyond explanation. We are not going to understand, no matter how we stack and restack; no careful arrangement is going to make meaning. ‘No stories work for me,’ Molly wrote in Bandit. ‘The “story” I have felt these facts through is just a simple and untranslatable darkness. A packed wet powder, dark navy blue, nothing I could fit in a rectangular package and place on a library shelf.’

The day, as I am writing, is like a crystal without faces. I felt Molly in this book, but a different one: the small allotment of her that I had. The people who surrounded Molly share something, maybe – a hesitance to claim her. If we called ourselves her friends, would she reject that? She sent a few people cookies on the day she died. It was the great uncrossed-out thing; it was what she could do. She might roll her eyes at us; so what? Maybe in the end it is better to make the claim. I knew Molly; I walked with her a little ways.

Will you roll the dice, and change her again? Flash some other combination? That she would continue to appear in the live studio audience of a Dr Phil taping, or standing before one of her cakes. I have wondered why anyone would like baking. I guess it is like the sun, doing something. In her childhood diary, she wrote: ‘I put food out for farries but it is still here today.’

Being in water
Thinking about how big the universe is
Reading other people’s journals

That she might like a picture of your crystals, or your cats; that you might like a picture of her imperial chickens. Now and then I still come across something that seems to belong to her, or that might go on her list of things she could write about. In an Amazon review of Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours (1814), someone called Danielle says: ‘It has helped me make a few colours for my new painting. “Avocado”. Not just yellow and green.’

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