Bitter Water Opera: A Novel

Image of Bitter Water Opera: A Novel
Release Date: 
April 16, 2024
Graywolf Press
Reviewed by: 

“an intensely lyrical, philosophical novella by a gifted writer, easily capable of these sophisticated leaps and drops.”

These days, we are wise to the uselessness of thoughts and prayers. The abundance of empty remonstrances make it easy to forget the power of a great gesture, of a passionate one. Specially, of those that tug at us with the promise of transformation until we believe that we, too, can finally live up to our loftiest, our most secret, ideals.

Bitter Water Opera, a brief, sweet novel by Nicolette Polek, is built on just such a gesture, the narrator saved in every way that matters by the spirit of dancer and painter Marta Beckett (born Martha Becker).

That narrator is Gia, the novel’s heartbroken, hanging-on-by-a-thread narrator, in charge of telling us Marta’s story, and her own:

“Marta and her husband Tom were vacationing in Nevada, as the story goes. One morning they woke in a windstorm to a flat tire on their trailer. On foot, Martha found an empty white adobe complex with an abandoned hotel, offices, café, and, lastly, through a courtyard of Tamarisk trees and a door, she saw a theater, with kangaroo rats and a water-warped stage.”

Marta went on to famously make that abandoned theater hers, even painting an intricately conformed audience on the walls, her husband Tom soon replaced by a new Tom who saw what she saw: an adoring, engaged, committed audience capable of enjoying her magic tricks of movement.

Marta retired to the world she had created, and named it Amargosa. She gave it her dances and her choreographies. Her hopeful views of the world. Her grand gesture of imagination.

Until Gia writes her a letter, even though Marta has long passed on. The next day, Marta shows up at Gia’s home, somehow aware of what is needed from her: some mothering, a lot of inspiration, and the ability to stay, if only for a while. For Gia has recently been left by a lover and comes from a family of women engulfed in depression and moroseness. Her letter to Marta is itself a gesture, the kind we make when afraid we can’t keep ourselves alive without help. An act of faith, and of will, for if the mind is going to make up what isn’t really there, let it make beauty, let it create art and gift it to captive audiences, never mind in what precise way they might have become captivated. And though Gia is not herself an artist, there is another, stronger, bond binding her to Marta, one she is relying on: feminist solidarity.

“This was the kind of woman I thought I would be. Alone and powerful with creation. In childhood, I refused to go to church for months because I disliked that women were made second, like an afterthought, in Genesis. When I told my mother, she laughed and quoted one of her favorite theologians that there is also ‘an ascending line in creation: from inanimate matter, to plants, lower animals, mammals, man, and finally, women.’”

Many of our conversations were like this, gridlocked at paradoxes—how greatness is in weakness and the last are first, how in little there is enough, and how all these contradictions were contained in the life of someone who descended into and out of death in order to raise us all. It didn’t matter if she was or wasn’t right. A veil covered my heart, which opened to another veil, and another veil.”

Those contradictions have caught up with Gia by the time she decides to room with an independent woman’s ghost, to be “her witness, hoping that she, and some active imitation on my part, could fix my life.”

The word fix is apt, for Gia is not a passive narrator. She questions Marta’s routines and habits as they relate to her art, her remedies for the heart after the first Tom is “lost to brothels,” but she also copies movements, habits, does her part to stay tethered to this world.

She engages with a man named Peter and listens to the story of a woman who leaves her husband by removing one thing from their apartment each day, taking it to an apartment on the other side of town until it’s done, and she’s gone.

But it’s Marta who holds the life lessons Gia knows enough to know she needs, and will pursue with the grandest gesture of all: language, as in this passage from Bitter Water Opera, in which lucid Gia makes a case in defense of her life’s unique pursuit:

“A sliver of proof that from oblivion can come intentional precision. John Cage, in a completely soundproof room, listened hard and close to hear two tones emerge, one high and one low—one of his nervous system and the other of his blood circulation. Mendelssohn sat in a cave and heard the opening of The Hebrides. Marta looked through a small hole in the wall and saw an opera house. I thought I had nothing, but after long enough something emerged from bitter water—a mysterious thing that precedes itself, and continues past itself, a master of ceremonies who stands outside the beginning and end.”

This isn’t a spoiler because Bitter Water Opera is not a linear story. It’s an intensely lyrical, philosophical novella by a gifted writer, easily capable of these sophisticated leaps and drops. But the passage does reveal something: the names of the gesture it searches for: a model for life after heartbreak, a tutorial in making art one’s lover, the way to the heart of a ghost who’ll knock on your door on a rainy night and bring the faith.