You’re about to tell us all about Lydia Millet. Why should we want to know about her?
What you’re asking for here is what’s known as “the hook.” The hook is the part of the essay where I try to spray some intoxicant into your mouth so that it stays open long enough for me to feed you a turkey without you noticing. In this case, everything you ever wanted to know about Lydia Millet is the whole turkey, and if you need an intoxicant to fit this turkey down, I’ll just go ahead and say that Lydia Millet sits somewhere between Jonathan Franzen and Ben Marcus, and that this position of hers is significant because those two guys, when compared to each other, can be easily mistaken for irreconcilable poles, with Franzen as the earnest, realist, political writer, and Marcus as the voice from the underworld in which love is turned upside down and the ocean’s black and the trees are gray. Millet is equal parts both of these guys, but really she’s her own thing, and if I hadn’t thought that maybe you needed your mouth sprayed with intoxicant, I would’ve just skipped to your next question.
Lydia Millet recently released Magnificence. What’s it about?
A very good question. To understand Magnificence, you must understand that it’s the third installment of a trilogy, and that How the Dead Dream first, and Ghost Lights second, preceded it.
In How the Dead Dream we meet T., a boy who’s especially equipped to succeed in business. T. swindles his friends and talks circles around his friends’ mothers—and, when he gets to college, he doesn’t let the opposite sex interfere with his dreams for riches, a lifestyle choice that causes his fraternity brothers at Duke to refer to him as a eunuch.
After college, T.’s early success in real estate leads him to Los Angeles, where he finally falls in love, only to see his girlfriend die tragically. After she dies, T. begins to question his way of being and goes to Belize, where he had been building a resort. When he gets there, encouraged by some fortuitous circumstances, T. finds himself alone under the firmament rather than pondering sand quality and thatch construction. Finding himself alone under the firmament, T. loses his resolve to spend his life developing real estate, and he doesn’t come back to LA.
In Ghost Lights, T.’s assistant, Susan, has a husband, Hal, an IRS agent who believes that taxes are worth waxing philosophical about. Hal goes to track down T. in Belize and bring him back. Hal decides to do this partly in order to prove his virility to Susan, and partly in order to prove his virility to himself—Hal had become upset with himself for being blind to Susan’s philandering, which he’d just discovered, but also for being blind to the fact that his paraplegic daughter operates a phone sex line, which he’d just discovered as well.
So while T. goes to Belize because he’s disillusioned with his successful realization of his life’s misguided goals, Hal goes to Belize because he’s disillusioned with his own mediocrity. Hal, while there, gets drunk, has an affair with a German beauty, finds T., calls his wife, starts to restore himself in her eyes, calls his daughter, then gets stabbed in the gut by a thief and left to die alone on a sidewalk.
In Magnificence, T. is back from Belize, the tan line around his recently shaved beard still evident, while Hal is dead and Susan is calling herself his murderer, on account of the fact that Hal went to Central America only after discovering her with a young man who didn’t know that his fantasy baseball hobby was funny, and who also had a robotic style of lovemaking. Also, while still grieving, a distant relative dies and gives Susan his house, which is a mansion filled with taxidermy.
Has Lydia Millet written any other books aside from the three in this trilogy? If so, what are they like?
Lydia Millet has written a number of other books aside from the three in this trilogy, and in terms of what “they’re like,” they vary, but her early ones do have a peculiar brutality to them.
For example, take My Happy Life, which is about a woman who’s led the worst conceivable life. The narrator was an orphan in a box on the street, and now when she tells her story, she’s locked starving in a room in an abandoned hospital. This, however, isn’t the first time she’s been locked up. After Mr. D. finds her living in a park, he takes her home and installs her in a pink room with tropical flowers.
And soon he brought a tool into the room. It was of an old and strange design, sharp in places and black and very heavy. He said it was authentic and historical, and could be in a very fine museum indeed.
However it did cause discomfort nonetheless, leaving blue bruises, red welts and lacerations on the skin. I thought: Excuse me. Perhaps it is an honor to be lacerated most historically.
Still I was worried, and wished to shelter my arms and legs. Otherwise they would go the way of the foot, and I would be one giant deformity.
Or take Omnivores, about another imprisoned young woman named Estée, this one held at the behest not of a guy who finds her in a park, but of her father, who collects and dissects specimens like bugs, but also larger animals including eventually an old lady named Margaret.
“Who is she—?”
“Old bag. I found her selling Bibles in Tulsa, and crappy pictures of angels. Religious comic strips.”
“You’re letting her go,” Estée said, but again she’d misremembered Bill’s strength. It had been a mistake to try straightforward defiance: a devious path would have been wiser. Her father was a fat man, some might say obese, but that didn’t stop him from charging. He had the strength and mass of a bull, the speed of a human cannonball. He was on top of her again in seconds, pressing thick thumbs against her windpipe.
She woke up with a headache and swollen tongue, her back sore, across the room from the old woman. They were both caged.
When Bill comes to the cages to bring his prisoners sandwiches, Estée’s first question is where she’s supposed to go the bathroom.
This is all pretty brutal.
And the brutality here makes for a natural comparison to Ben Marcus’s The Flame Alphabet, where the voices of children make their parents sick, a situation that draws the world to moral extremes.
Millet and Ben Marcus both roam mechanical, deprived, dark, absurd underworlds. But Millet is funnier than Marcus. And whereas Marcus mourns the fact that his characters in The Flame Alphabet cannot love, Millet seems to revel in her characters’ detachment, in their numb matter-of-factness. We see this again in George Bush, Dark Prince of Love, when Rosemary, who’s obese and obsessed with George Herbert Walker Bush, finds a guy named Apache smoking a joint in front of her George H.W. Bush media crucifix and tries to get him to stop.
I soon realized I had made a grave error of judgment in engaging him in combat physically. Ten minutes after hostilities had been initiated, the sour-smelling carpet of his facial hair was flowing over my face, blinding me, suffocating me, and tickling my nostrils unpleasantly, and my wrists were pinned to the floor while Apache had his way with me.
I was not new to the game, fortunately—on the contrary, I was by that time a seasoned veteran—and was able to relax eventually, to minimize abrasion.
Is that the political writing you were talking about that connects Millet to Jonathan Franzen? An obese women who’s built a media crucifix for George H.W. Bush but also suffers from the darkness that links Millet to Ben Marcus?
No. Though there’s plenty of political writing in Dark Prince of Love in the form of satire, and there is an implicitly political aspect to deranged men inflicting violence on numb, detached women, Millet also writes in a more directly Franzen-esque, less absurd, less brutal, explicitly political way.
Which is relevant to detail being that Magnificence is going to make use of both of these modes, and so form a sort of culmination of her work, the culmination being the meeting point between: 1.) political-feeling social commentary like having a boy swindle his friends and avoid sex in order to improve his chances of becoming successful enough to construct subdivisions in the Mojave—only to reverse course and decide to save near-extinct species in Borneo instead; and 2.) the peculiar brutality that involves caged women who don’t acknowledge the horror that is their lives, and rather carry on with hair-raising matter-of-factness.
Exactly. Millet’s first explicitly political writing appears in Oh Pure and Radiant Heart, in which Robert Oppenheimer comes back from the dead with a few of his colleagues to learn about his own legacy and begin a global campaign for nuclear disarmament, a campaign that packs very little wince factor for the reader, thanks to the sheer disorientation of reading about Oppenheimer alive in the new millennium—it’s like the disorientation disarms the reader from wincing at what might otherwise come off as didactic.
Wait a second. What’s this “wince factor?” What do you mean by that?
What I mean by wince factor is that it’s easy to imagine that in Oh Pure and Radiant Heart, a contrite Oppenheimer roaming the globe in the new millennium talking about nuclear disarmament could’ve induced winces. Like sometimes you’re reading about the human condition, and then you begin to sense the onset of pontification, which you know from experience feels like a violation of the high standards of writing that are required to represent the human condition, a violation that sometimes authors commit in order to expedite certain political points, points that, by their very nature, rely on a certain one-dimensionality that, in other circumstances (circumstances without a political point to make), would add up to bad writing.
Meaning that, for example, a character like, say, a heartbroken slave driver, when being written about for the purpose of illustrating the human condition, can still be a sympathetic character because he, like the reader, is a human being, a fact that even his job as a slave driver can’t completely obscure. But when the writer’s purpose when describing this slave driver is political-social commentary, it becomes more difficult for that slave driver to be sympathized with, because the writer leans upon his slave-driving aspect more heavily than normal, and the balance employed to represent the human condition—a balance that is normally the hallmark of good writing—is violated, and the slave driver is made less human in order to prove the opportunistic point that certain things are bad, rather than the more everlasting point that all parts of being human are human, and that all the bad parts are inextricably linked to the good.
In Magnificence, Lydia Millet wonders, “Why was the term [do-gooder] so bitter, so resentful?”
Which can be translated to: Why does do-gooder writing make readers like me wince?
Maybe it’s just that readers don’t like when writers ensnare them in a plot and then take advantage of their attention to deliver a lecture. Or maybe it’s that political-social commentary, when delivered in the sobriety of tone characteristic of third person omniscience, feels fraudulent, because social commentary ought to be delivered in a form with flaws built in and confessed to up front, like Henry Miller’s first person invective. Or maybe it’s that do-gooder characters and moments tend to feel absolved from moral judgment, or God’s purview, a tendency that, at the bare minimum, robs a story of some tension or makes it fall flat.
I’m not sure. But when I feel the possibility of poorly done political-social commentary on the horizon, I get nervous. Like when Dave Eggers has a very good book going in the form of The Hologram for the King, and a guy’s in Saudi Arabia and spending a lot of time waiting around and unable to have sex with women, and then he’s got this growth on his neck that he keeps on poking, and the book really seems be gathering steam, but then all of a sudden the guy’s reflecting on his decision to compel the bicycle company Schwinn to start manufacturing their bicycles more cheaply than they were before. And then the guy’s reflecting on how he personally ruined Schwinn, and also ruined himself, and it all just feels a little bit bogus, like maybe market forces had something to do with Schwinn’s doom, forces bigger than this one guy, and maybe Schwinn’s move to manufacture bikes at a lower cost is something the guy could get mad at the government or Wall Street or the whole world for, instead of himself. Like maybe there is no conceivable ex-Schwinn employee on the planet who thinks like this, because the economic climate isn’t the kind of thing that any one man blames himself for. And then you’re kind of wishing your dad were around to tell Dave Eggers about low taxes and how great they are, even though normally when your dad’s going off on this, you get up and leave the room.
How does Millet deal with the pratfalls surrounding political-social commentary?
In How the Dead Dream, Millet buys leverage with her use of absurdity. T., at this point in time a college student, counsels a young man who sometimes wishes he were a farmer in Guatemala. The kid muses out loud, “You just get up and eat beans and then you work all day, like, hoeing shit.”
And in a line like that, you see not just how difficult it is to be a decent human being, but how to try to be decent is to risk absurdity. And that there is really what this trilogy is about—how absurdly difficult it is to be decent. To not be a monster like the murderers and abusers in Omnivores and Dark Prince of Love and My Happy Life.
What about in Magnificence?
In Magnificence, Millet has quite a task on her hands—to end a story about a onetime swindler and master businessman returned from his epiphany under the firmament to make good, to apply his epiphany and lead a decent life.
And she does this. But, T’s reformation happens in the background, and really Magnificence is about Susan, Hal’s widow who insists on calling herself a “murderer,” a set-up that returns the trilogy to Millet’s early focus on women, and, by relegating T. to the background, goes a long way towards warding off winces.
We’ve talked about winces enough.
Let’s focus on Magnificence.
Millet opens Magnificence with a lengthy, poised, both un-absurd and un-didactic meditation on the ways in which the evolving world has doomed men to insanity, and women to complicity with their insanity.
“To be a tragic hero, all that was needed was manhood.”
In this opening, I got the sense that Millet had come to understand how the brutality of her earlier writing relates to the political-social imperatives of her later work—this insanity of men that was so evident in Omnivores and My Happy Life had found a home in the real world. Or rather, Millet found a home for this insanity in her quite real surroundings, rather than in the forced environments of locked rooms and cages, abandoned hospitals and basements.
“The men, being permanent sociopaths, got credit for consistency.”
In the book, Susan, while trying to figure out what to do with herself after her husband Hal dies in Belize, inherits a mansion from a distant relative, and the mansion is filled with taxidermy, a detail that rightfully leaves the reader with a sense of foreboding. But moving into this mansion, Susan moves into the sort of environment Millet’s earlier work had taken place in—the house/prison filled with specimens in Omnivores, most readily—except this time, the man’s dead. The sociopath is gone. But Susan is left to investigate his legacy, the darkness that any reader of Millet knows lies behind the seemingly innocuous stuffed animals, and all the while she does this against the backdrop of T.’s reformation.
So Susan’s in this mansion filled with dead animals, and she likes being there. She likes being rich, and she likes the investigation. She wants to know why these dead animals are here. What motive brought them all together, if only as corpses. And she’s transfixed by the quest to figure it out, by the motive behind this celebration of murderousness, so much so that, when she finds a manhole that we know full well has to lead to some kind of nightmare, Susan has to go down there.
Couldn’t she just lift it up? But there was no handhold, no opening.
“Backhoe,” she said to herself.
Certainly it was a fool’s errand. Still, she would make some calls to the city.
There was a moment in Magnificence when I thought I knew exactly what was going to happen—Susan had just inherited the mansion, and her contrition-filled grief phase had abruptly terminated. After saying that the problems of the world invariably came back to rich people, she found herself quite attached to the mansion, to being rich. And then, some cousins threatened to file a lawsuit so that they might get a share of her new home.
And then, there’s T., back from Belize having decided to dissolve his company and start a charitable foundation instead. And he appears to be the only person who can help Susan. So. What’s going to happen? Susan’s going to need help fending off her cousins so that she can keep the mansion that’s made her happy, and the only person she knows with the competence and the resources to help her has just decided that money is inconsistent with what he felt when he had his epiphany under the firmament.
Is that what happened?
No. The puzzle I saw was a red herring, a distraction that enabled Millet to set up her true finale, which juxtaposes “doing good” not just with the dark forces of badness and death, but with our—with Millet’s—fascination with said dark forces—e.g. with the fact that Susan cannot help but go into the basement, and also with the fact that Millet so clearly enjoys detailing brutal rape scenes, the more horrific the better. One suspects that if Millet were writing in a sealed-off basement like the ones in her stories, she would keep on with the brutal satire that characterizes her early work, the sadistic men and shackled, desensitized women, her imagination free to indulge its darkest corners without the interference of the outside world, the interference of the fact that brutality must compete with the instinct to do good. But Millet doesn’t write in a basement. In her later work, she opens herself up. At the same time, she always keeps the brutality close and ready, right below ground, right underneath the mansion. And what we wind up with in Magnificence is a juxtaposition not between doing good and the mere existence of darkness, but between doing good and our fascination with darkness, with our eager and willing complicity with it, a complicity that makes doing good feel so meek.
So you liked it.
Magnificence, along with Oh Pure and Radiant Heart, is my favorite of Millet’s works. Part of the reason I like it so much is for the case study Millet provides on how to write about political and social issues—she writes about women and men, wealth, taxes, disability, the environment, soulless subdivisions, capitalist imperatives expressed in boyhood, interracial couples, caring for the elderly, and whole a lot more. She makes the points that need to be made, but that can send readers running on account of the fact that hearing about this stuff can feel like sitting in a third grade classroom.
But with Millet, it almost never feels like I’m sitting in a third grade classroom. I think this is because she hasn’t sworn off her early fascinations: with terror; with the fact that she can find humor in terror; with the odd joy she finds in writing her way into the darkest worlds conceivable—the joy that, even as she writes to us about a capitalist who goes to Borneo to save animals, she can’t forget about, and can’t give up. And this joy in darkness gives her street cred. And it also gives us faith in her, faith that she’s not telling us how to be good, but writing to us about how difficult it is to be good. With the difference being that she’s not saying we need to give up that basement below the mansion. She’s not telling us to pretend it doesn’t exist, or to fail to pop open the manhole. She knows that’s impossible—and what’s more, she knows that, even if it were possible to go through life denying our intoxication with darkness, to do so would be bad. Bad because a story in which Susan doesn’t go into that basement would be boring, but also, fraudulent. Because that’s not how things are. That’s not how we are.
Thankfully, that’s not the ending we get. Because the Millet of Magnificence is not a recovering alcoholic rambling on about the joys of sobriety. Millet is not even a writer torn between the bottle and the wagon. Rather, Millet is a writer who wants both. She keeps darkness (her own, and ours) always in view, but she’s also chosen to write about goodness. And it’s this choice, I think, that’s delivered the humor and brutality of her early work from the confines of the basement to the light of the wider world.