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How the Dead Dreamby Lydia Millet
"A few years ago, the wacky social novelist Lydia Millet published an essay attacking mainstream environmental organizations for being glib, sentimental, even onanistic. 'Die, Baby Harp Seal!' opened with a witty comparison between a calendar from the Nature Conservancy and a glossy photo spread in Hustler magazine....The environmental movement, she [wrote], 'has failed to generate a compelling language for itself.'...To avoid 'a long slow slide into obsolescence,' activists will need to develop 'the guts to assault us with the impacts of our own desires.'
That battle cry would seem to call for a pretty heavy-handed novel....But How the Dead Dream surprises in the other direction, largely avoiding the hectoring, lecturing tone of...big-name, environmentally self-conscious novels." Ron Charles, Washington Post Book World (read the entire Washington Post Book World review)
Synopses & Reviews
T. is a young real estate developer in Los Angeles with a reverence for money and the institutions of capital. Always restrained and solitary, he has just fallen in love for the first time when his orderly, upwardly mobile life is thrown into chaos by the appearance of his unbalanced mother, who is seeking comfort from her son after his father's sudden desertion.
Struggling to maintain a relationship with his girlfriend and keep his mother on an even keel, T. slowly begins to lose control. In the wake of a series of painful losses, he begins to nurture a curious obsession with rare and vanishing species. Soon he's living a double life, building sprawling subdivisions by day and breaking into zoos at night to be with animals that are the last of their kind — a journey that culminates in a Conradian trip deep into a hurricane-ravaged Caribbean jungle.
With devastating wit, psychological acuity and heartbroken empathy for flawed humankind, Millet's latest novel contends with the emotional complexities and spiritual resonances of a dazzling world in decline.
"Millet proves no less lyrical, haunting or deliciously absurd in her brilliant sixth novel than in her fifth, the acclaimed Oh Pure & Radiant Heart. As a boy, T. keeps his distance from others, including his loving but vacant parents, preferring to explore his knack for turning a dollar. Before long, he's a wealthy but lonely young real estate developer in L.A. Just after he adopts, on impulse, a dog from the pound, his mother shows up and announces that T.'s father has left her. His mother, increasingly erratic, moves in; meanwhile, T. finally meets and falls in love with Beth, a nice girl who understands him, but a cruel twist of fate soon leaves him alone again. As his mother continues to unravel, T. finds unexpected consolation in endangered animals at the zoo, and he starts breaking into pens after hours to be closer to them. The jungle quest that results, while redolent of Heart of Darkness and Don Quixote, takes readers to a place entirely Millet's own, leavened by very funny asides. At once an involving character study and a stunning meditation on loss — planetary and otherwise — Millet's latest unfolds like a beautiful, disturbing dream." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"A few years ago, the wacky social novelist Lydia Millet published an essay attacking mainstream environmental organizations for being glib, sentimental, even onanistic. 'Die, Baby Harp Seal!' opened with a witty comparison between a calendar from the Nature Conservancy and a glossy photo spread in Hustler magazine. (Millet knows more than most of us about both: She has a master's degree in environmental... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) policy, and she once worked as a copy editor for Larry Flynt.) Those airbrushed photos — girl and seal — 'satiate by providing objects for fantasy,' she wrote, 'without making uncomfortable demands.' The environmental movement, she went on, 'has failed to generate a compelling language for itself. Its propaganda falls flat, its style is outdated, its rhetoric is stale.' To avoid 'a long slow slide into obsolescence,' activists will need to develop 'the guts to assault us with the impacts of our own desires.' That battle cry would seem to call for a pretty heavy-handed novel, something like T.C. Boyle's 'A Friend of the Earth,' Annie Proulx's 'That Old Ace in the Hole' or Margaret Atwood's 'Oryx and Crake.' But 'How the Dead Dream' surprises in the other direction, largely avoiding the hectoring, lecturing tone of those big-name, environmentally self-conscious novels. For one thing, Millet doesn't spend a lot of space on the old news that the ecosystem is slipping into a silent spring. Instead, 'How the Dead Dream' focuses on the quiet existential crisis that arises from living in a dying world. The novel opens with the author's signature zaniness: suburban satire about a mercenary boy named T. who's obsessed with the presidents on American money. After a 'brief early flirtation with Grover Cleveland,' he explores ways of making more profit than his paper route can provide: protection rackets on the playground, walks for various vaguely named charities, and a black market in stolen bottles of liquor, copies of 'The Joy of Sex,' Super Plus size tampons and brassieres. 'Oh yes,' Millet writes, 'he knew where value lay.' He graduates to day-trading and gambling during college, developing a slick, ingratiating personality that makes him indispensable but also separates him from his acquaintances. This is all witty, but that satiric tone falls away early in the novel as T. begins a lucrative career in real estate development. He's astute, viceless and wholly self-contained — qualities that make him attractive to business associates but a little unnerving at the same time. Everywhere around him he sees successful men who are desperately lonely, but this insight does nothing to keep him from feeling the same way. Just as the novel falls into a dark lull, T. hits a coyote on the highway and finds himself surprisingly upset. His brief encounter with the natural world awakens him to its existence, even as he makes a fortune developing 'battlements of convenience and utopias of consumption.' In this melancholy state, he's dealt a devastating blow by the sudden death of his girlfriend, but she's such a brief and blank presence in the novel that it's hard not to feel his reaction is a little melodramatic. Nevertheless, this marks a turning point in the story, and his grief and loneliness find resonance only with the creatures he's helping to push toward extinction with his real estate developments. Suddenly, he can't fathom why everyone isn't alarmed about the environmental crisis: 'In the gray that metastasized over continents and hemispheres few appeared to be deterred by this extinguishing or even to speak of it, no one outside fringe elements and elite groups, professors and hippies, small populations of little general importance. The quiet mass disappearances, the inversion of the Ark, was passing unnoticed.' There's a lot more in this vein, heavy preaching to the choir about the destruction of the natural world. But what's striking is T."s reaction. The novel's most haunting scenes involve him breaking into zoos around the country. He's not trying to free these exotic animals or strike back at their captors. He just wants to watch them; then he begins sleeping in their cages. 'He knew their position, as he knew his own: they were at the forefront of aloneness, like pioneers. They were the ones sent ahead to see what the new world was like.' This isn't a call to action so much as to lamentation. Beyond the anti-growth theme that, frankly, Millet doesn't pursue with much new energy lies a dark, deeply affecting exploration of one man's spiritual crisis in the face of biological decay. Breaking into the Bronx zoo, he stands next to the Sumatran rhinoceros: 'He was alone with her — and he was content. It was not to claim the animal's attention that he was here but to let her claim his. ... After a while the rhinoceros sighed. It was a familiar sound despite the fact that they were strangers. He knew the need for the sigh, the feel of its passage; a sigh was not a thought but substituted for one, a sign of grief or affection, of putting down something heavy that was carried too long. In the wake of the sigh he wondered exactly how lonely she was, in this minute that held the two of them. Maybe she saw beyond herself, the future after she had disappeared.' In scenes such as this, when T. feels 'the sad quiescence of the animal's own end of time,' the novel reaches heights of real pathos. But unfortunately, Millet clogs her moving story with a variety of distracting dead ends: T."s father 'goes' gay; T. has an affair with a crippled woman; T."s mother slips into dementia; T."s only friend is a wealthy jerk of cartoon-like crassness. These episodes take up a lot of room in this short novel without contributing much to its central concern. Worse is Millet's tendency toward abstraction and pretentiousness, which sometimes smothers her wit. She's best when she makes startlingly odd events seem wholly real. The final act takes T. deep into the jungle for a conclusion that's both terrifying and moving. Yes, there's an argument for environmental action here, but what's more profound is Millet's understanding of the loneliness and alienation in a world being poisoned to death. Ron Charles is a senior editor of The Washington Post Book World. Send e-mail to charlesr(at symbol)washpost.com." Reviewed by Ron Charles, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
(hide most of this review)
"Millet, a writer of encompassing empathy and imaginative lyricism, and a satirist of great wit and heart, takes readers on an intelligently conceived and devastating journey into the heart of extinction." Booklist (starred review)
"How the Dead Dream synthesizes the two styles of Millet's fiction — the harrowing and the madcap — with a new elegance." Andrew Leland, San Francisco Chronicle
"It's hard... to convey how invigorating Millet's fiction is, how intelligent and thematically rich, how processes of thought are themselves made urgent and lively through the specificity of her observations and sentences that offer startlement, small and large." Catherine Bush, The Globe and Mail
"[T. is] rendered in such complex, fine detail — as carefully etched as one of the engravings he studies on the backs of dollar bills — that he comes alive, irresistibly sympathetic, both deadpan and deep." Carolyn Kellogg, L.A. Times
"With wry, brilliant dialog and insightful existential musings, Millet delves deep into the meaning of humanity's destructive connection to nature and the consequences of the extinction of both animals and love. Absorbing and not to be missed; highly recommended." Library Journal
T. is a young Los Angeles real estate developer consumed by power and political ambitions. His orderly, upwardly mobile life is thrown into chaos by the sudden appearance of his nutty mother, whos been deserted by T.s now out-of-the-closet father. After his mothers suicide attempt and two other deaths, T. finds himself increasingly estranged from his latest project: a retirement community in the middle of the California desert. As he juggles family, business, and social responsibilities, T. begins to nurture a curious obsession with vanishing species. Soon hes living a double life, building sprawling subdivisions by day and breaking into zoos at night to be near the animals. A series of calamities forces T. to a tropical island, where he takes a Conrad-esque journey up a river into the remote jungle. Millets devastating wit, psychological acuity, and remarkable empathy for flawed humankind contend with her vision of a world slowly murdering itself.
About the Author
Lydia Millet is the author of several previous novels, including Everyone's Pretty and My Happy Life, which won the 2003 PEN Center USA Award for Fiction. She lives in the desert outside Tucson, Arizona.
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