How the Dead Dream
by Lydia Millet
A review by Ron Charles
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 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 Its propaganda falls flat, its style is outdated, its rhetoric is stale."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 fades 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: His grief and loneliness suddenly resonate with the creatures that his real estate developments are pushing to extinction. 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 more in this vein, 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 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 protection 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 Book World.
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