Friday, January 11, 2013


How the Dead Dream, Lydia Millet, Counterpoint, 2008, 244 pp

I have always meant to read Lydia Millet. Instead of starting with her first novel, as I usually do, I decided to begin with the first of her trilogy.

How the Dead Dream is an intriguing title. I was expecting something like Kevin Brockmeier's The Brief History of the Dead. I didn't get that but I got something equally astounding and good.

A curious mix of dry humor, tragedy, and unique characters makes up the story of T. As a boy he grows up with a reverence for money and institutions. He becomes a savvy and successful real estate developer only to be felled in the end by loss. After learning the truth about his distant and indifferent father, finding and losing the love of his life, and taking on the burden of his loopy, Christian, and somewhat senile mother, T turns to animals for comfort and answers.

Not just any animals but animals who are on the verge of extinction become his obsession. When Barbara Kingsolver writes about what mankind is doing to each other and the environment, she lays it on the line in no uncertain terms. Lydia Millet takes a different approach.

By way of T's gradually developing awareness of how the practices that have made him successful are the very actions causing losses in the natural world, Millet shows the answers to two of my most perplexing questions: how will mankind ever wake up to the damage being done and will we wake up in time to avert our own extinction? Her answer to the first is, very slowly. To the second, possibly not.

One of the recent developments in writing style is evident in How the Dead Dream. It is a certain deadpan, reportorial, removed voice. I am coming across it more and more in contemporary fiction and sometimes find it disconcerting. I wonder if the trend in non-fiction writing toward a more creative, literary style is having an inverse effect on fiction toward a fact-based journalistic style.

Millet took me into the psyche of T but with a distinct lack of sentiment. And yet, when he loses his girlfriend, her rendering of the grief process is one of the best I have ever read. Some of the scenes between T and animals have the potential to rend the heart with a Steven Spielberg-type sentimentality, but she never crosses that line. She keeps her distance. It is as though she were practicing tough love on her readers, saying this is what real life is made up of, so you better just suck it up and keep trying for some semblance of being admirable.

In the end, the book did not end but left me hanging. Then I remembered it was the first of a trilogy and there is more to come. Some readers complain about author manipulation. I've never been much bothered by it. I expect an author to have her way with me. Why else would I read so much? Along with the voice I mentioned above, Millet's prose is also poetic, even other worldly at times.

Reader, beware. You will be manipulated and you might just like it.

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