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by blake butler
archway editions, 328 pages, $17.95

It seems heartless to discuss Blake Butler’s memoir Molly as a work of art. The story it tells involves deep trauma and grief, not to mention personal revelations that sometimes make for uncomfortable reading. Even so, Butler asks the reader to treat all this as literature, rather than a confession, or a release of pent-up emotion. Essentially this book is a tribute to Butler’s late wife, the poet Molly Brodak, even though she is not always depicted in a flattering light. Nor is the author himself. He tries to tell the truth, and isn’t always sure of what to leave out.

Brodak’s father robbed banks to help pay off gambling debts. In her 2016 book Bandit: A Daughter’s Memoir, Brodak wrote, “They say the traits of a sociopath are incessant, sometimes even pointless dishonesty, lack of impulse control, and lack of remorse, accompanied by charm, narcissism and studied manipulation. Skimming through the basic criteria for this personality disorder in the DSM-5 I was struck by how obviously this description suited my dad. I had to laugh a little.” There is an echo of this in Molly, where Blake uses the DSM-5 to suggest that Brodak was afflicted by borderline personality disorder. Indeed, she came close to suggesting this herself in Bandit, which Butler encouraged her to write.

Butler fell in love with Brodak’s Facebook profile before he ever met her. At the time, he was helping his mother look after his dementia-stricken father. His 2011 book Nothing: A Portrait of Insomnia reflects his state of mind during this period, albeit obliquely: He leaves out details like his blackout drinking and fits of self-loathing rage. Molly is blunter and more frank in what it reveals. 

Butler and Brodak got off to an unpromising start. On their first date, he picked her up from jail after she had been caught driving a car with an expired registration. Later that evening they proceeded to a bar, where she showed him some MRI scans and told him she was worried her brain tumor might be coming back. They slept together at the end of the night; in the morning she told him she loved him. Despite the dramatic declaration, or perhaps because of it, Butler tried to keep her at a distance. She pursued him until his resistance broke down. “It’s not as if I like damage, exactly,” she once wrote. “It’s more that damaged things seem truer.”  

Brodak’s relationship with Butler lasted nearly a decade; they married in 2017. On the afternoon of March 8, 2020, she committed suicide. Molly begins with a detailed account of the last day of her life, and Butler’s discovery of her body in a field near their house. The first twenty-five pages of this memoir are surely among the most compelling in recent American literature. Butler makes the reader feel all his horror and anguish as he relives these events; but he is too honest not to record moments of bathos. 

When the police arrive at the site where Brodak killed herself, one of them fences off her body with yellow “CRIME SCENE” tape. A detective asks Butler whether he had any sense that his wife might kill herself. Still in shock, Butler mentions, among other things, her cryptic poetry. Trying to be sympathetic, the detective tells him: “I like poetry too.” You can see Butler struggling here with how he should tell this story, and whether it ought to sound “poetic” and “writerly” or messy and chaotic. He never quite works out what he is trying to write or why. All he knows is that he has no choice but to write this book, for the sake of his sanity.

When Brodak met Butler, she was still married to her first husband; she concealed the fact, and lied when first confronted about it. This was by no means her only secret. A few days after her suicide, Butler discovered that she had consistently been unfaithful to him, right until the end. One of her lovers even claimed that Brodak was planning to abandon Butler. She had been living a double life right under Butler’s nose. All these posthumous revelations were clearly overwhelming, and the final third of the book is consequently a blur. In some sections there is too much material for either the reader or the writer to handle. 

Perhaps the most unexpected aspect of Molly is its theological dimension. The entire memoir seems haunted by God, even though nobody in it is obviously a practicing or believing Christian. Butler fell away from church as a teenager; during his life with Brodak, he thought of himself as the sort of skeptical agnostic who preferred not to call himself an atheist. Brodak, by contrast, was defiantly anti-Christian, and hostile to the very concept of God, telling Butler one day (apropos of nothing) that if he ever tried to go to church again, she would divorce him. Yet for all her insistent nihilism, her despair over the concept of a cold, dark, meaningless universe, she seemed curiously preoccupied with God, as well as the immortal soul in which she claimed not to believe. At the end of her suicide note she wrote: “Please make art for me. I will read it all. I will always be with you.”

Butler’s attitude to the supernatural is curious. After his mother’s death, he had what felt like an out-of-body experience. On the eve of his family’s estate sale, he even thought he was being taunted by the voices of demons. Toward the end of Molly, there is an episode in which Butler believes himself to be communicating with his dead wife, after another eerie encounter with what seems to be a demonic presence. He remains ambivalent as to whether this was all in his head. To accept the objective truth of this sort of experience is to commit yourself to a view of reality with troubling implications in an aggressively secular, materialist culture. On the other hand, these might have simply been hallucinations. If so, what would that imply? 

Brodak once wrote: “Satan cries because he’s the only one in hell who remembers God’s love. He had felt it. He was once there, right up next to it.” Except in stray, cryptic, somewhat kitsch remarks like these, neither she nor Butler demonstrate any obvious conception of a personal god, let alone God in three persons. Jesus is nowhere to be seen in Molly. This is an emphatically post-Christian book, and yet Butler can’t help using concepts and language that seem unmistakably Catholic. This isn’t to say that he seems ripe for conversion—he might not want to hear that suffering can be a sign of God’s love and favor. 

It seems churlish to point out structural weaknesses in Molly, or occasional longueurs in the narration. Sometimes the prose is jarringly self-conscious, but never for more than a few lines at a time. Butler falters mainly when he forgets that he isn’t writing for a therapy group, or Creative Writing workshop. In any case, these lapses are rare. Butler’s general lack of bitterness or self-pity is admirable. His affection for Brodak shines through even in passages where he’s obviously still angry with her for lying to him.

Brodak found Butler’s 2020 novel Alice Knott difficult to read. As he recalls in Molly, “it hurt for her to have to see all the pain behind my language, how much I’d been carrying around all this time.” This was part of their very last conversation. Even Butler’s comic writing has often had an air of suppressed anger and woundedness. He entitled a July 2013 Vice Magazine review of the Pretzel Bacon Cheeseburger at a fast-food restaurant “I Hate Myself and I Want to Die.” But in Molly, the pervasive darkness, aggression, and nihilism have finally evaporated from Butler’s prose. 

Butler began by trying to tell his late wife’s story, and ended up telling a much bigger story than he realized: He has captured the destructive power of sin far more convincingly than many Christian writers have latterly managed to do. That, in itself, is a remarkable achievement.

Jaspreet Singh Boparai is a former academic.

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Image by Luc Viatour licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

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