06 April 2008

How the Dead Dream by Lydia Millet

I've tried to write about Lydia Millet's new novel, How the Dead Dream, a few times now, but I've never been able to get too far. It is one of those books that, for me at least, is so entirely what it is that writing about it feels inadequate, because I can provide little more than summary or illustration, and if that is all there is, then I might as well keep this short and say no more than I liked this book. But I'm going to risk saying a bit more than that.

As anyone on whom I foisted it knows, Millet's previous novel, Oh Pure and Radiant Heart, was one of my favorites of recent years. I had no trouble saying lots about that book; if anything, I had trouble shutting up. How the Dead Dream is an entirely different sort of book, though. It is less vast, less epic: the novelistic equivalent of a lyric poem or a cello suite.

What amazes me about How the Dead Dream is that it is a determinedly political book and yet not a particularly didactic one. (I say "particularly" because a few moments seemed heavy-handed to me; I suspect every reader's tolerance level is different.) Or, rather, it is a sometimes-didactic novel but not an insistently-didactic novel, a novel that does want us to think about such things as the extinction of species and the moralities of capitalism and the relationships between humans and animals, but that does not insist we come up with action plans. It is more elegy than agit-prop.

Much of what makes the book effective both as a novel and an outcry is its language, the particular turns that the sentences take, and the mix of humor and pathos. There are elements of satire and caricature within Millet's portrait of T., a real estate developer and ultra-capitalist who in childhood was so obsessed with money that he sometimes filled his mouth with coins, but the satire and caricature here are more focused and less baroque than in Oh Pure and Radiant Heart, which is appropriate to the new novel's scale. Even when the satire is at its height, it is not alienating -- T. remains quite sympathetic, a lost soul rather than a Randian ubermensch, and the clang of the absurd is tempered with mournful grace notes.

The shape of the sentences is what kept me reading How the Dead Dream with real pleasure. Their rhythms and pacing are exquisite (a fact made all the clearer when I heard Lydia read the opening scenes at her McNally Robinson appearance last month), and they move along briskly, but richly, the words precisely crafted:
And it became clear to him that his early mentors -- the founders, the dead sages of the judiciary -- did not have modern counterparts in government. The great roofs that had sheltered them were raised now not over heads of state but over the motile geniuses of corporate novelty; these men now wore the mantles formerly worn by the fathers of the nation-state. They held up economies and reshaped them at will. After the robber barons had come the technophile visionaries, the practical philosophers of earning, and they, not the government men, were the new kingmakers.

He read their bestsellers.
In the second half of the novel, after various calamities devalue the bits of meaning his life has accrued, T. starts visiting zoos. Then he breaks into the cages at night and climbs in with the rarest of the animals and goes to sleep. He doesn't entirely understand why, but this is his only source of solace. Later, once he has move away from civilization altogether, he begins to understand that he finds comfort with animals and in wild nature because they allow him to think of something other than himself:
He had left the settlements now, all the old geographies. For so many years they had been the only thing; you did what you did and whatever it was consumed you, as though your actions were the heart of experience. As though without a series of actions there would be no story of your life.

Those who loved stories also loved the human, to live in cities where there was nothing but men and their actions as far as the eye could see. Once it had been believed that the sun revolved around the earth; now this was ridiculed as myopic, yet almost the same belief persisted. The sun might be the center of the planets and then the sun might be only one star among galaxies of them: but when it came to meaning, when it came to being, in fact, all the constellations still revolved around men.

He had been drawn to cities, had considered no alternatives -- cities and buildings, buildings and institutions. The lights across the continent. But what if, from his childhood on, he had imagined not the lights but the spaces between them? He would do so now, to make up for all the years behind him.
I'm quoting some of the most openly philosophical passages in the book, passages that occur in its final pages, when T. has emerged from various crises only to enter a fully metaphysical one, and so I am risking giving a false impression of the whole -- this is a book rich with incident, a book that covers a lot of ground in a relatively short space. The ending fascinates me, though, partly because I didn't know what to make of it on a first reading: it felt unresolved, even hasty, and yet somehow also transcendant. I read it a few more times and decided it was not hasty at all, and that impression had been created in my mind purely from my own expectations of a more traditional sort of knot-tying at the end. The last paragraphs, in fact, gained power on rereading, because when I first read them their emotional effect was blunted by my expectation of something else. Keep your mind open, don't expect a familiar template, and the effect of the final pages will be a powerful one. I suppose the same could be said for the whole book. Part satire, part meditation, part fugue, part exhortation ... read How the Dead Dream not as a "novel" but as a thing of its own, and you are likely to find much to give you pleasure and thought.