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Grief Is Information: A Review Of Blake Butler's 'Molly' photo

Often, when I think of grief, I find myself returning to a quote by Chris Kraus from Aliens & Anorexia


“Crying leads you through concentric rings of sadness. You close your eyes and travel outwards through a vortex that draws you towards the saddest thing of all. And the saddest thing of all isn’t anything but sadness. It’s too big to see or name. Approaching it’s like seeing God. It makes you crazy. Because as you fall you start to feel yourself approaching someplace from which it will not be possible to retrace your steps back out — it’s much too large and ancient. There are too many parts of other people it in for one person to absorb. Grief is information.”


Blake Butler’s new book Molly, published on Archway Editions on Dec. 5, captures this spiritual movement within mourning, this passing through universes in the midst of intense despair. Molly threads together life, death, madness, and dreams; it takes the reader’s hand, brings them into the void with him, so we can also confront the unknown and make it out alive, as he did.

Molly begins with suicide. It starts with a normal day, Butler hugging his wife Molly Brodak for what he doesn’t yet realize is the last time, and embarking on his run as part of his routine, and then the immediate descent into disorientation, a rearranging of life as he knows it. When I think back to the morning my father passed, what strikes me most is the beautiful weather, the sun and the peaceful texture of the neighborhood, then violently ruptured, almost absurdly. It is the moment before the shattering that is the most fascinating, our cluelessness of what is to come.

“So much of our lives we spend taking up measures to see to it that the worst possible things we might imagine never happen,” Butler writes. “We depend upon the hope that all those measures are only extra, that all our precaution might forestall or balance out some darker path, upon which, were we forced to walk upon it, our lives would split into before and after, then and now.”

Death punctures life in a singular way. Weeks following my father’s death, I continued on, as one is forced to, going out and seeing friends, only to find myself, mid-conversation, drifting out of my body, stiffness in my limbs as I felt myself leave, and I would float in the air, far from whoever I was speaking with, wondering how I existed before that morning of death, before my reality was casually darkening at the corners in the name of grief. I didn’t want to let myself forget what had happened, because then I would remember; remembering was an instant dissociation, because death was too big for my body or mind to handle, as if merely thinking about death would lead to my own.

“Even the soft light through the window like a shoehorn, pulling the fabric of the world up at its edges in my peripheries, everything fake,” Butler writes about the day of Molly’s passing, sitting alone in the living room. He describes the pain of being near others—the impossibility of them understanding what he is experiencing, a fundamental pain of life, one that played into Molly’s desire to escape. He also recognizes the bottomlessness of misery; at one point, in a strange, delirious consciousness, he floats through the ether and approaches “a massive bulb or orb-like entity,” which he concludes to be the “pure embodiment of madness”—“So, once again, I had a choice: Give my life up and move on, or return to my body on the Earth.” Despite reaching out and touching the orb’s edge, he ends up awake in bed, “funded perhaps by the part of me that still wanted to exist, discover life… this chaos, its impending transformation, wasn’t mine.”

Such devastation provides clarity. Through therapy, Butler is able to notice the cycle of abuse and express it sharply. Butler’s details of Molly’s suffering are plentiful and vivid, such as through scenes of her father’s cold detachment when Butler and Molly meet up with him in prison, and then later, when he’s released, at a pizzeria, both visits brief and almost transactional. Butler’s descriptions of Molly’s vicious self-loathing, which hung over her like a veil, are the most impactful, painful; Butler conveys how it was inevitable that her darkness would transform into casual cruelty with which she often treated him. When Butler, after Molly’s death, discovers she had been unfaithful, he sees the ways her father’s manipulative behaviors seeped into her, life all one big game of not getting caught and conning the people around you for the sake of emerging victorious, if only just to feel real. Instead of blaming her for his trauma, he sheds light on how easy it is for others to continue the pattern of harm; he recognizes—ironically, as a writer—the insufficiency of language in such instances. Topics like abuse are too often reduced into sweeping generalizations: If you have perpetuated abuse, you’re a bad person. Butler, though, is understanding of where Molly’s actions came from, is even grateful for this discovery because it gives more context to her death.

Like with his ethereal descriptions of approaching madness, Butler revisits the supernatural when he begins hearing Molly’s voice, when he feels her communicating to him through dimensions, informing him the window is brief but their connection is strong. This is, I think, what Kraus meant when she said grief is information. It forces you to open yourself up, invite signs, await the unknown. And so often, our natural response to the unknown is fear and dread; it can be the fundamental source of unrest and disturbance, this answerless nature of our existence. But, if we were to have all the answers, what would be left? What wonder, what curiosity, what amazement, what imagination, what possibility?

“In spite of—or perhaps in light of—so much unknowing, so much anguish, so close up, I find the deepest reaches of my person hanging on,” Butler writes, “as if I do know that what I don’t know shouldn’t stop me from imagining the possibility of something more—of change, if not of the whole world, then of myself, without a word to even frame it in my mind.”

Molly, in its three hundred and twelve pages, transcends time and space, life and death. We are always surprising ourselves, realizing what we are capable of. The bottomlessness of misery is matched by the inconceivable heights of joy; at the end of the day, fear is just the sharp edge of awe. I am reminded, now, of the ending of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea, after the protagonist has meandered, feeling reality constantly on the verge of unraveling as he reckons with meaninglessness and aimlessness. “Can you justify your existence then? Just a little?” he wonders on the penultimate page, upon hearing a song and recognizing its timelessness, contemplating a creative endeavor of his own. “It would have to be a book: I don’t know how to do anything else.” Molly feels written for such purposes—as if these pages were his only way of finding solid ground amidst his cosmic free-fall. I don’t think it is foolish to believe that the answer to oblivion is both love and art, the two—maybe only—vessels for infinity, and the main reasons to continue living.

Get Molly here.