Who Gets to Name What’s Evil? On Blake Butler’s “Molly”
By Mike JeffreyJanuary 17, 2024
Molly by Blake Butler
Molly begins with a careful account of Brodak’s last day. Butler remembers her as “extremely down” that morning—stuck in bed again—and tries to cheer her, holding one of their chickens up to the bedroom window and doing a cute voice for it. The ploy doesn’t work; Brodak doesn’t smile. After that, Butler queues up music for a jog but quickly turns around and heads back into the house when he notices that Brodak has sent him an email with no subject line, “I love you” as the body of the text, and a completed poetry manuscript attached. He finds her in the kitchen with the lights off, gives her a hug, and congratulates her for finishing the manuscript. She shrugs him off, and then he heads back out for his jog. In retrospect, Butler writes, she must have been concealing the gun in that moment, the last moment they would share on earth.
Butler’s opening is intensely detailed and imbued with intimacy, with the memories and habits of a marriage, though he dutifully acknowledges the inevitable gaps in his recollection. Coming home from his run, he finds Brodak’s suicide note taped to the front door, and a horrible momentum takes hold: the heightened awareness of panic, the confusion of shock, the frigidity of procedure. Crime scene tape. Questions from detectives. The arrival of friends who know there’s nothing you can say. Returning to the house that’s no longer home.
These first 25 pages of Molly are the most devastating you’ll read this year, or any year. I cried, and I never cry reading books. After finishing the opening chapter, I recommended Molly to everyone I know with a taste for depressing literature, with zero hesitation—though I did worry that the rest of the book might read like an anti-suicide PSA: “I loved my wife so much, she was so great, depression is a disease, please seek help if you’re suffering.” Thankfully, Molly is much more complicated than that. Messy even. And it’s more than a little aggrieved.
“It’s my story with Molly that’s mine to tell,” Butler writes early on, preempting any accusations of exploitation. “The real project here is one of a certain kind of active faith […] to seek a light shed on the secret, sacred parts of life we might too often prefer instead to cover over and let go.”
He’s promising not to whitewash, in other words. Throughout the book, Butler reiterates his undying love for Brodak, his admiration for her mind, and his appreciation for her physical beauty. (There’s a photo on the cover of her standing behind a French door, ethereal and pretty, a platinum blonde in a white dress, and there are many others inset with the text.) But “the warmth and love [they] shared” is not felt nearly as acutely as Butler’s embittered grief.
Like any proper 21st-century romance, theirs begins on the internet, on Facebook. (Butler is 44 years old; he doesn’t remember who sent the friend request, but he definitely DMed first.) Brodak is secretly still married at the time, it turns out, and soon after moving to Butler’s hometown of Atlanta, there’s a violent scene involving a “popular poet” and literary nemesis of Butler’s. After months of flirty internet correspondence with Brodak, this playboy operator arrives in town for a poetry reading. Brodak claims to have no interest in seeing him or going to the reading, but Butler stakes out her apartment just to be safe and finds a tour van with plates from the poet’s home state parked out front. A passionate confrontation ensues. Butler barges into the apartment and finds the poet in his boxers, reading on the bed; Brodak insists that there’s been a big misunderstanding and she planned to sleep on the couch all along.
From the get-go the relationship seems, uh, not great. There’s gaslighting, emotional abuse, and infidelity, all of it on Brodak’s part in Butler’s telling. Throughout Molly, Butler depicts Brodak as fiercely devoted to her self-loathing and pessimism, responding with irritation to all offerings of encouragement. Honestly, she comes off as kind of terrible. She acts frustrated, for example, when Butler asks her to set aside a baking project in order to accompany him on a visit to see his ailing mother, who is quite literally on her deathbed at the time. Once she has died, Brodak requests $10,000 of Butler’s inheritance money for breast implants—and suggests that he look into liposuction for his pesky love handles. Butler pays for the implants, and then Brodak tweets that she’ll send “a photo of her left breast to anyone with the guts to ask.” It’s a joooooooke.
Butler habitually contextualizes and makes apologies for Brodak’s behavior, citing childhood abuse and bad parents—wacky narcissist Nora and serial bank robber Joe. “I can’t even fully fault her for [her abusive behavior], despite the knowing looks I get when I’ve tried to suggest she’d learned to wield her story as a weapon after having had no choice as an abused child, the extent of which I still believe that no one will ever know,” Butler writes. “Abuse is passed on through more abuse, of course, and who was I to want someone to be able to withstand that, to foment change.” In search of understanding, Butler also turns, unfortunately, to the DSM-5: “Though she never received a specific diagnosis—that I know of—in looking back after her death, it’s hard not to read the DSM-5’s description of the traits of borderline personality disorder and not find Molly there in every line.”
Whenever someone goes on a little too long about the faults of their partner or ex, I become suspicious, especially if that someone hits me with the “she’s crazy” routine. I find that my sympathy automatically slides toward the absent party. In Butler’s account—big surprise—Brodak’s transgressions far outweigh his own, though he does take pains to acknowledge his fallibility. It’s like “she’s crazy” with some hedging. “I was aware, at least in part,” he writes, “that I had abundant flaws like anybody—talking to myself, pounding on my desk, inattentive to the groceries, often sleepless, drinking too much, pessimistic and occasionally vindictive, obsessed with work.”
I don’t know—I feel like, if you’re really trying, you can find worse things to say about yourself. It’s a question of reliability. Butler references his rage throughout, but passively dismisses Brodak’s complaints about his inattentiveness.
From those gripping opening pages, Butler hints at Brodak’s secrets, which are extensive, shocking, and only revealed after her death, when he goes through her computer and phone in search of content for a slideshow at the funeral home. That’s when he discovers a trove of nude photographs, evidence of recently deleted profiles on dating apps, and a damning email chain with her sleazy mooch poet lover (a different one, Butler clarifies, from the “popular poet” mentioned above).
Butler makes an effort to sustain the warmth of his love for Brodak through the snuffing damp of the betrayals revealed posthumously. But he can’t quite pull it off, except for when he reflects on her work ethic and her writing. He frequently quotes from her book Bandit: A Daughter’s Memoir (2016), and that’s where any curious person should turn before or after reading Molly. In Bandit, Brodak’s fierce intelligence and charm are on full display as she reckons with her pathological liar/bank robber of a father. Reading Bandit provides a fuller, more sympathetic picture of Brodak, and real evidence of the qualities that Butler lists sort of inertly in Molly. She’s a talented stylist—prose written by poets is the best—and it’s interesting to encounter Butler’s quoted passages in their original context.
“I know what’s it’s like to make the wrong choice, over and over,” Brodak writes,
as if taunting the consequences, practically asking them to come straighten you up.
And to act secretly, build a whole small, bad world in private, like an invisible dimension running just under the one everyone else lives in.
You prop up a better self to your loved ones […] but without the evil element.
She’s writing about her shoplifting habit here, and also announcing her secret self, the same self that cheats on Butler and wheedles inheritance money out of him for a solo trip to Tucson. She tells him she’s going on a self-guided writing retreat, but it’s actually a rendezvous with her lover.
Early in Molly, Butler recalls “an undesirable desire […] to take the gun from Molly’s hand, la[y] down beside her, and somehow in her honor, double down.” At his lowest, he says, “any other option outside of [suicide] […] would bear the tint of pitiful formality.”
This brought to mind the merch for Tyrant Books, the late Giancarlo DiTrapano’s legendary alt-lit press—specifically, the T-shirt with the Tyrant logo on the front and “Double suicide or it wasn’t love” on the back. Molly is Butler’s 10th book, and his novel Sky Saw was released by Tyrant in 2012. He’s also the founding editor of HTMLGiant, probably the most influential lit blog of the 2010s. In Molly, Butler mentions 300,000,000 (2014), his “cryptic novel about a psychic viral illness that ma[kes] every person in America want to kill and consume the flesh of every other person in America until there [is] no one left but one.” Publishers Weekly described it as “the 21st century answer to William Burroughs.” I don’t like Burroughs (get over it) and found 300,000,000 arduous to read but impossible to quit, and legitimately disturbing. Here’s a fairly illustrative passage: “Any inch of what was mine once became yours by my not knowing how to have it, in that wherever I was not looking was always the only place to be remembered. Bit by bit the nation ate itself alive by we the teeth.” Added context won’t do you any good.
Butler shouts out Gertrude Stein and The Recognitions (1955) in that book too; I was reminded of The Dead Father (1975) by Donald Barthelme and Motorman (1972) by David Ohle as well, bizarro novels that are intentionally disorienting and test the limits of language. “I think the last thing I’m ever interested in is giving anyone, any standard, what it wants, including my own,” Butler said in a 2020 interview. “I want to write something that breaks all those things up.” Butler dedicates the last section of 300,000,000 to Brodak, who encouraged him to revise the ending.
It’s helpful to keep Butler’s literary dominion in mind once you get deep into Molly and he starts writing about communicating with his mother and wife across the boundary of life and death. “Not long after Mom’s passing, I left my body for the first time,” he writes.
Layers of gray on gray formed to appear there in my mind just at the cusp of touching sleep. […] I found that I could scroll my mind-state forward from on the far side there, like open falling without boundaries of physics or intent, a space I recognized from years of a recurring dream depicting the vast backstage of the world of human drama.
“What the fuck is this shit?” I asked aloud when I encountered this material, so at odds with the rest of the book to that point, but perfectly in tune with the schizo register of his fiction.
Near the end of Molly, Brodak speaks to Butler from beyond the grave, her voice interwoven with Brian Eno’s Thursday Afternoon (1985), one of their favorite albums:
She’d had to practice for what would be trillions of years in human time to be able to speak to me as such, to translate her experience back into a form of language I could parse. […] The bond we’d found in sharing love in time, magnified through tragedy, allowed a certain form of intervention, a means to press beyond mere reason.
I’m not going to question the veracity of these séances. I’ll leave that for ethicists, spiritualists, ghost hunters. Just don’t be surprised when Butler wanders way out into the woods—that’s where he’s comfortable.
It’s standard procedure to perform rituals of tribute when loved ones die. We honor the dead by putting on black clothing, paying them compliments in subdued environments, and advocating for the comfort of their souls in eternity, depending on how religious we are. We don’t speak of certain things—the juicy parts—except in whispers, or in the car, gossiping.
In Molly, Butler rejects discretion as a necessary feature of tribute. For example, he shares Brodak’s suicide note in its entirety. He shows her at her lowest, at her worst. An authentic act of loving memorialization must contain the ugly parts, he argues, particularly in light of Brodak’s sturdy pessimism. But maybe memorialization is beside the point. Maybe the truth is the point, and serving “not himself and not others, but that great cold elemental grace that knows us,” which is how Joy Williams defines the writer’s task.
Is anyone capable of telling the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help them God? Of course not. Brodak least of all, Butler seems to argue. She suffers the weight of the world, the weight of her mind, and the weight of her deceits, and eventually finds it all unbearable. Her dad, on the other hand, survives on self-pity, never apologizing for his crimes, lying to his families (he had two simultaneously), or abandoning his children.
Another liar comes to mind. In The Adversary: A True Story of Monstrous Deception (2000), Emmanuel Carrère studies the double life of Jean-Claude Romand, a fake doctor who defrauded the elderly, the terminally ill, and his mistress, and then murdered his parents, his wife, and his children when his lies threatened to catch up with him. The Adversary, Molly, and Bandit are all concerned with the consequences of living a life of full-time deceit. Romand digs himself a deeper and deeper hole, and finally decides to kill his family rather than allow their view of him to be ruined by the truth. Brodak seems to suffer her deceits, almost duty bound to depression, and seeks an escape in death. Her father spends nearly two decades in prison for robbing banks and rides self-delusion into old age and estrangement.
All three books explore the conflict between deceit and love. Is it possible that Brodak loved Butler while grooming a stable of undergrad lovers under his nose? Butler thinks so. Is it possible that Romand loved his family and also chose to murder them? Carrère is undecided.
“I don’t know if he is a sociopath,” Brodak writes about her dad in Bandit. “But if he did it all, knowing the consequences, who and what he’d lose, and went ahead anyway—that seems like something else, like actual evil.”
Is it possible to love what’s evil? For evil to love? Who gets to name what’s evil?
Brodak can never quite emancipate herself from her father, unable to give up the hope that he might still offer her the love she needed from him as a child. Butler barred him from the funeral.
For the author to go on a promotional tour sounds even worse than reading the reviews, but everybody knows you have to show face and go on podcasts if you want to sell books nowadays. I just can’t imagine the fortitude, stamina, and patience it would take to present a kind face to the inevitable nitwit who seizes the opportunity to speak self-indulgently into the microphone, throwing out “more of a comment than a question” after they’ve listened to you read about searching for your wife’s body in the nature trails near the house where you made art and raised chickens together.
Maybe it’d be cathartic, though, saying it all out loud and crying with the strangers, all of them with grief in their hearts, small or large, ancient or fresh. And I guarantee they’ll cry—maybe even the sociopaths, who will be faking it.
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