Sweet Emptiness: On Nicolette Polek’s “Bitter Water Opera”

By Brittany MenjivarApril 19, 2024

Sweet Emptiness: On Nicolette Polek’s “Bitter Water Opera”

Bitter Water Opera by Nicolette Polek

WHEN I FIRST moved to Los Angeles, I was enraptured—not by the sun, nor by the looming specter of celebrity, but by the novelty and variety of the landscape. Back in my suburban Maryland hometown, the terrain had been flat and monotonous; lawns, soccer fields, and stretches of forest were all painted the same sleepy shade of green. In Los Angeles, craggy golden mountains rise above hotels, marquees, and parking garages; freeways run parallel to the vast, blue Pacific. Even the city’s infamous traffic jams offer opportunities to reflect on (and in) nature’s radiance. Soon after my arrival, I set out for Joshua Tree National Park. In the desert, surveying the sheer emptiness of the expanse, I finally understood what the transcendentalists meant when they’d spoken about “the sublime.”

The protagonist of Nicolette Polek’s debut novel Bitter Water Opera (2024), Gia, experiences a similar revelation in California’s desolate Death Valley, the site of her own awe-driven pilgrimage. Of course, Gia’s wisdom is not earned without undergoing myriad trials. Polek’s book starts just after Gia has quit her job in a university film department and separated from her boyfriend. In the wake of the breakup (instigated by her own repeated instances of infidelity), Gia becomes fascinated with the real-world ballet dancer Marta Becket, whose photograph she finds in a library archive. In the 1960s, Becket left New York City for Death Valley, where she spent the next five decades living in an abandoned opera house, staging her own shows, and painting the walls with the likenesses of her ideal audience members (including “a guest drinking wine out of a high-heeled shoe” and “a bullfighter eating a mango”). She danced until her death in 2017, at the age of 92.

Dissatisfied and increasingly restless, Gia follows Marta’s spirit on a journey that, however meandering, ultimately takes her west. The desert she encounters there is a void—one that presents itself as God-shaped. Notably, this is a story of rediscovery rather than radical, sui generis conversion: as references to prayer and the Catholic channel Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN) suggest, Gia grew up in a moderately religious household. Polek, who holds a master’s degree from Yale Divinity School, rejects sensationalism; in the tradition of philosophical predecessors Marilynne Robinson and Madeleine L’Engle, she achieves a quiet, stirring reverence.


According to novelist John Gardner, there are two types of stories: those in which a stranger comes to town, and those in which a character goes on a journey. Bitter Water Opera incorporates both. In the first section, Gia and Marta forge a curious friendship as the dancer’s ethereal form takes up residence in Gia’s home. Part two follows Gia’s retreat into a more mindful lifestyle, as she escapes lingering memories of her relationship by house-sitting for her friend Simone (a remote, wooded setting described so abstractly that it feels outside of time and space—a sort of purgatory, perhaps). Not until the third section does Gia set out for Marta’s theater, now part of a hotel—Amargosa Opera House, a destination so inevitable that her arrival there feels like the fulfillment of a prophecy. As such, the book’s structure mirrors traditional journeys of faith: many biblical accounts begin with a sacred vision-visitation that precedes a quest for understanding. (L’Engle’s 1963 novel The Moon by Night, which also uses the road trip to effect a spiritual odyssey, comes to mind as well.)

Bitter Water Opera doesn’t waste time with backstory. The book opens with the ease and immediacy of a fairy tale or parable; a week after Gia writes a letter to Marta (inscribing Marta’s name on the envelope in lieu of an address) and places it into her mailbox, the deceased dancer materializes on her doorstep. Both the author and Gia accept Marta’s appearance without much fanfare: “I was rearranging the living room furniture when I noticed a figure through the blinds. I opened the door. […] ‘Marta,’ I said, and she immediately asked to rest, so I showed her to the back room where I kept my gardening shears and an air mattress for guests.” Polek thereby starts her book on a demonstrative note, encouraging readers to follow Gia’s lead and take a leap of faith.

Of course, beneath a less delicate pen, Marta’s spectral presence might function as a hackneyed allegory. Initially, I wondered if Gia’s admiration for Marta would spiral into a maddening obsession—or if Marta might play an angel in a simulacrum of It’s A Wonderful Life, goading Gia to find purpose in the face of seemingly pitiable circumstances. Thankfully, their relationship unfolds with more nuance. Marta manifests as a source of wisdom in Gia’s life as an older friend or relative might. The dancer encourages Gia to paint a mural of her very own, to elevate her consciousness with film and art; she also provides the solace of silent companionship when Gia craves stillness above all else. Their (mostly wordless) interactions seem choreographed, like a ballet: early on, Gia curtsies to greet Marta and subsequently feels mortified by the gesture; later, after Gia’s anxiety in front of her idol has dissipated, Marta tenderly places a cigarette in Gia’s mouth. What begins as awkward silence between the women blossoms into a rapport that doesn’t eschew language but doesn’t require it either, and Polek deserves many bouquets for her finesse in directing these sequences.


Are we to perceive Marta as a sort of vision or an actual ghost? Gia seems unconcerned with the question. However overwhelmed she may feel by issues of what to cook for her new visitor or how to make conversation with Marta in the car, she appears seldom troubled by the precise supernatural nature of the encounter. Her attitude evokes the Christian notion of mystery, a concept I became familiar with in parochial school, one that offers a useful lens through which to consider Polek’s book. In the Christian sense, a mystery is a truth that cannot be comprehended by human reason alone. Inherent to this understanding of mystery is the imperative to make peace with incomplete knowledge—to immerse oneself in what a 14th-century mystic referred to as “the Cloud of Unknowing.” The book’s second section, by which point Marta’s phantasmal form has gone, very much reads as in conversation with these themes. As Gia seeks a departure from the kinds of thinking that originally led to her affairs—the fetishization of curiosity to the extremes of disregarding and devaluing her relationship, even herself—she wonders “what the opposite of living limerently [is], how to snub the desire to be where and who [she is] not.”

Contending with these questions, Gia undertakes an errand so whimsical that it beckons the surreal, purchasing a large number of tree saplings and planting them around Simone’s yard as a surprise. Though Gia will never see the trees bear fruit, she delights in digging and landscaping—in this way, gardening becomes an exercise in mindfulness and selfless detachment. Free will begins to feel less like a burden and more like a blessing.

Not only does the scene work as a fulcrum in the narrative; it also calls attention to Polek’s adroitness with metaphor, on both sentence and conceptual levels. Even when the author employs archetypal images like blossoming trees, her writing never feels heavy-handed. Instead, there’s a sense that she is channeling the collective unconscious. And, like gnarled branches that twist and turn, her ruminations rarely lead to the expected: upon sighting a tree’s shadow, for instance, Gia recalls both her mother’s fascination with the use of shadows to tell time—indicating her power to see “something [Gia] couldn’t yet see”—and her own shadow, which she interprets as the version of herself that is always “reaching.”


“Fanaticism […] can be a form of repressed doubt,” Gia notes in the first section, reckoning with her reticence around Marta. Upon visiting the Amargosa Opera House in part three, Gia is able to assume an attitude of respect rather than completely keeling over. Having confronted her doubt by this point, she recognizes Marta’s sense of purpose and self-assuredness as qualities she can aspire to, attainable rather than otherworldly. As this issue resolves, another of the book’s preoccupations emerges more clearly—the problem-cum-promise of the empty space. In part one, Marta takes Gia to visit a painter’s estate. There, gesturing toward the maximalist decor, a docent explains how Victorians crowded their walls and parlors to keep a superstitious fear of emptiness at bay. For Gia, the impulse resonates; at this early point, she is also scared of emptiness, set as she still is in her limerent ways. Yet it is ultimately emptiness in its various forms that draws her closer toward meaning: the figurative emptiness in her life left by the loss of her relationship leads her to the literal emptiness of Simone’s isolated house, which in turn leads her to the most profound (literally and figuratively speaking) emptiness of the desert.

In Death Valley, Gia is finally able to embrace empty space as generative. At long last, her fear of—or cosmic horror at—absence becomes a fear of—or wonder and awe at—God. A stop in Badwater, the lowest point in the country, provides a moment of particular clarity: “I was surrounded by emptiness, and didn’t wish to fill it,” Gia realizes. Her subsequent, long-awaited tour of Marta’s theater brings her into contact with a group of preservationists attempting to restore the space to its former glory—figures who function almost as envoys for Marta, reminding Gia that it is possible to build something beautiful from ruin. Wandering about the vast opera house, Gia internalizes what Marta’s story has shown her: finding peace in solitude begets an existence that will never truly be lonely.

Bitter Water Opera concludes after only 126 pages. Such brevity hardly seems incidental. Instead, it appears a matter of craft: rather than chapters, each part of Polek’s book is split into anecdotes extending a few pages at most, divided by section breaks. Some of these anecdotes occupy only a paragraph or so, after which the remainder of the page is left blank. The novel’s very structure thereby suggests that mystery itself is meaning—that emptiness might hold its own kind of fulfillment.

Basking in the Joshua Tree sun on that first trip, I experienced the desert plain as a kind of miracle. Yet to speak to the universe’s power is in the land’s very nature. In light of this, Polek has done something truly extraordinary—using words alone, she has created a landscape through which the Spirit (of life, of love, of the sublime) moves as naturally as if it were navigating God’s green earth. There, the water that gushes forth from the springs is not so much bitter, but sweet.

LARB Contributor

Brittany Menjivar was born and raised in the DMV; she now works and plays in the City of Angels. With her partner in crime Erin Satterthwaite, she runs Car Crash Collective, hosting late-night literary readings at Footsies Bar in Los Angeles. Her poetry and fiction have been featured in HADDream Boy Book ClubSpectra, and Dirt Child, among other publications. Additionally, she was named a 2023 Best of the Net Award Finalist. You can stream her short film Fragile.com on YouTube’s ALTER Channel, where it has nearly two million views. You can also find her on Substack: she posts cultural criticism via BRITTPOP, and keeps track of the most exciting events happening in L.A. each week via The Angel Almanac.


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