The Empty Spotlight: On Nicolette Polek’s “Bitter Water Opera”

By Dashiel CarreraApril 19, 2024

The Empty Spotlight: On Nicolette Polek’s “Bitter Water Opera”

Bitter Water Opera by Nicolette Polek

IN THE PENULTIMATE scene of The Red Shoes (1948), a spotlight strikes the stage. A man presents his hand to a closed door. It opens; there is nothing inside. He spins, and the spotlight spins with him. He leaps, pirouettes, and raises his arms, the spotlight following just beyond his body, illuminating a spot on which no one stands and nothing lies. The ballerina who was supposed to be in the spotlight, we learn, has just died. In her honor, the director has elected to run the show without her, an homage to her brief life. For the rest of the performance, a gaping, illuminated hole sways back and forth across the stage as the ensemble dances around the glowing space she occupied only one day prior.

Maybe it is no coincidence that the protagonist of Nicolette Polek’s new novel Bitter Water Opera projects The Red Shoes on her shed—it is precisely moments like these, of strange and arresting emptiness, with which the novel seems primarily engaged. The latest in a series of innovative works of fiction acquired by Yuka Igarashi at Graywolf, Opera is nominally a ghost story: it follows a protagonist neck-deep in malaise as she unknowingly summons the spirit of Marta Becket, a real life ballet dancer who abandoned her career to start a theater in Death Valley Junction.

The story goes that Marta’s car broke down one day in the Californian desert. It was there she peered through the back window of a dilapidated theater and felt immediately that she had discovered the second half of her life. Abandoning her friends in New York City, she moved to Amargosa Valley to convert this theater into an opera house for her one-woman shows. She then spent two summers painting a massive mural of a lavish-looking audience along the walls, refurbishing the seats, and generally reviving the town. As Marta puts it in the documentary about her life, “if you are walking through a desert and see a single yellow flower in the dust, that’s me.” It is this now-empty theater, the Amargosa Opera House, from which Bitter Water Opera gets its name.

But Marta’s ghostly appearance is a sort of McGuffin, at least to the extent such a thing can exist in a novel with so little plot. While the protagonist is stirred by her arrival, she is not shocked; Marta appears at the door with a suitcase and little fanfare, demanding neither vengeance, penance, peace, nor any other common request from the living dead. The protagonist concerns herself immediately with the trials and tribulations of the anxious host: what food Marta would most like and what music she might enjoy. If this sounds absurd, in the novel it is anything but. The lack of drama around Marta’s arrival is only a testament to the protagonist’s profound ennui, and her arrival, much like the spotlight in The Red Shoes, immediately comes to expose an unsettling emptiness.

We learn quickly that the protagonist’s colleagues at the university have begun leaving the department. She has recently ended a relationship, after a long series of infidelities, that continued for reasons opaque even to herself. She is concerned about the fate of other women in her family who have disappeared—an aunt who became a nun, a grandmother who banished herself to an apartment with potato salad for the rest of her days—and wonders what will become of herself.

Lists of objects and materials become a placid obsession. She begins to document in detail her groceries, furniture found at a nearby estate, and items in her mother’s small bedroom:

two windows
plastic solar-powered flowers that “danced” on the windowsill
an Audubon clock that played different bird calls on the hour

On one hand, this emphasis on materiality seems to be an opportunity for a necessary grounding for the protagonist, a means, as she says, “to pay attention, pick things up and feel their shapes, revere and share them.” On the other hand, their listing raises the question of what their sum total signifies, if anything, and what it is they hope to fill.

One moment in the novel sticks out: a friend of the protagonist leaves her husband by removing one object per day from their apartment. For months, he doesn’t notice, until one day he opens the closet, stunned to find “nothingness” within it. The parable is a harrowing one: not only that a life built of objects can be deconstructed just as easily, but also that, once these shared materials are gone, there is no longer proof, to the sad and blinking spouse, that a shared life really exists. In an interview with Brad Listi, Polek discusses how “charged objects” can take precedence in memory over the actual emotional event with which they are associated. Bitter Water Opera feels endlessly alive with charged objects, gesturing gracefully toward some opaque past that never distills completely.

This is the paradox at the core of the novel: the more lovely objects enter one’s purview, the more one becomes aware of their inability to fill it. I thought frequently of chapter 11 of the Tao Te Ching as I read: “Doors and windows are chiseled out to make a room / It is the empty space in the room that gives its function / Therefore, something substantial can be beneficial / While the emptiness of void is what can be utilized.” Opera manages to gesture toward a void in the protagonist’s life while never failing to take great care to recognize its remarkable beauty, standing somewhere between abyss and divine vacancy.

Opera no doubt has its contemporaries—journals like NOON or the now defunct NY Tyrant, which defamiliarize the quotidian and expose the churning tension that exists within. But Opera stands apart from much of this work in its spiritual intensity, or striking lack thereof. While every page of this novel remains charmingly grounded in an intimate attention to the objects of lived experience, the protagonist’s placid reactions to astonishing situations generate a startling, stirring, and unsettling quiet that lays plain the emptiness of the novel and the expanse lying beyond its lean, sparing peephole into this woman’s life. Like walking through Death Valley itself, I felt at peace reading through these pages, stunned by the landscape presented to me—and deeply alone. Any moment of mild unrest in the novel resonates and echoes longer than would otherwise seem possible.

The novel’s prose is sharp and precise, its metaphoric wisdom restrained and careful, its power deep and arresting. One of the great yardsticks for a work of art may be how long it lingers after it’s finished, and Opera simply will not leave; it sparks a lasting perceptual shift. I have spent the last few weeks abuzz thinking about its implications for landscapes, mathematics, architecture, and theology. By the end, I even began to question what emptiness was. Can there be emptiness without a desire to be full? Why do certain structures imply that they need to be filled while others don’t? Why does emptiness—as in words like desolate, bare, barren, and stark—so often have a negative connotation?

Marta Becket, so long ago, looked through a back window in an empty theater in Death Valley Junction and saw an opera house. So too has Polek peered into Becket’s life and seen a novel. This novel is a lovely, delicate feat, and a must-read for contemporary fiction enthusiasts.

LARB Contributor

Dashiel Carrera is the author of the novel The Deer (Dalkey Archive Press, 2022). His writing appears or is forthcoming in Los Angeles Review of Books, Lit Hub, FENCE, BOMB, Brooklyn Rail, and other publications. Also a musician, he has released five albums on the label 75orLess Records. He is currently a PhD student in human-computer interaction at the University of Toronto. You can find more of his work at


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