If Lydia Millet played by the normal rules of social satire, she might have been as large as T.C. Boyle by now. But whereas most satirists are looking for laughs much of the time, regardless of how sharp their knives might be, Millet is more the whimsical polemicist. Her novels are fanciful and surreal; rather than gently nudging everyday life into the realm of fluffy absurdity, she's trying to knock reality upside the head, thus revealing our venal and craven natures to ourselves.
Consider her last book, Oh Pure and Radiant Heart (2005), in which the fathers of nuclear fusion — Robert Oppenheimer, Edward Szilard and Enrico Fermi — rise from the dead and are dragooned by the book's bored librarian protagonist into seeing the damage they've wrought with their nuclear dreams. What follows is a bizarre missionary campaign of sorts for global comity that becomes a lively smack-down between reason and faith, science and God. It's a novel of ideas presented in the appealing guise of a warped picaresque.
Millet's empathetic and angry new book, How the Dead Dream, takes up many of the themes from Oh Pure and Radiant Heart, exposing as it does the moral rot of America's go-go capitalism. The book's protagonist, T., is a man given to poetic rapture over the restorative properties of enormous wealth. This is no Gordon Gecko wannabe, a venal bounty hunter looking for the big score. Rather, T.'s relationship to money verges on the religiously devout; he feels a deep kinship to his filthy lucre. “As there was only one intelligence residing in a self, as trees grew upward toward the sun… In the lurch and flux, in all the variation and the same, it was only money that could set a person free.”
The urge to make a lot of money in a hurry is, for a man like T., an end in itself, and he's very proficient at the art, forsaking virtually all human contact in the pursuit. He's an ascetic for money. Soon, T.'s amassed a fortune based on a close reading of stock tables, and soaks up more profit building dingy retirement communities in the desert: “His first houses went up almost overnight… fast and cheap, designed not to last but to become obsolete.”
It doesn't take long for Millet to upend T.'s world order with a few well-placed curve balls. For a man who regards human contact as a nuisance at best, the impingement of his family upon T.'s smoothly ordered life is a crime against inhumanity. T.'s callous father, for starters, decides to chuck his wife, don floral shirts, and become a gay bartender in Miami.
This doesn't sit well with Mom, who swallows a bunch of pills and has a minor stroke. T. takes her in when she wakes up from her coma, and finds himself somewhat abashed by her guileless and naive belief in “matters of the spirit” as a curative measure against the creeping onset of loneliness. Her inherent virtue touches some vestige of the unconditional love he received from her as a child. It humanizes T. just a tad, but not enough.
But more bad shit happens. T.'s highly tolerant girlfriend, Beth, is killed in a car accident, and it dawns on T. that he's experiencing the pang of real loss for the first time. Beth's death bothers T. more than he would prefer. Suddenly, the sting of his grieving supersedes financial gain; as T.'s vast real estate developments swipe away natural life with impunity, he starts to feel a profound sense of alienation.
“Cities were being built, built up into the sky, battlements of convenience and utopias of consumption — the momentum of empire he had always cherished,” Millet writes. “But under their foundations the crust of the earth seemed to be shifting and loosening, falling away and curving under itself.”
T. finds solace in, of all places, the local zoo. All of that wildlife trapped in cages, quietly suffering the indignity of having ice-cream bars thrown at them by snotty brats — the animals were the embodiment of nature cosseted and tamed, prisoners without any hope of parole: “He had no idea where they came from, could not know their individual histories. But he knew their position, as he knew his own: they were at the forefront of aloneness, like pioneers.”
Slowly shedding the appurtenances of urban life like a molting snake, T. sneaks into the zoo at night in order to sleep with the animals. He rails at the sad fate of endangered species wrested from their habitats for human delectation, and at how this “quiet mass disappearance, the inversion of the Ark, was passing unnoticed.” By the novel's end, the veneer of civilization is entirely stripped away and T. finds himself face to face with the primal forces of nature, the ones we forgot about in the name of unfettered progress.
As a novel that depicts man's estrangement from the planet and provides some faint hope for a more enlightened communion with all sentient beings, How the Dead Dream is both deeply moral and occasionally contrived. Millet is a protest writer who has her high beams on most of the time; T. is less a character than a symbol, and Millet's metaphors sometimes feel a little too tidy. Still, the zoo scenes are touching in an odd way; Millet persuades us that T.'s compassion is both genuine and cathartic.
How the Dead Dream resonates when Millet drops her bullhorn and settles into scenes of real intimacy. By far the most convincing and moving relationship in the book is the one that develops between T. and Casey, his secretary's cranky paraplegic daughter. Confronted by a hardened cynic with real problems and not a trace of self-pity — someone who gives no quarter and asks for none in return — T. falls hard. As the two characters fumble toward a connection, the glacier encasing T.'s heart melts into a puddle, and the novel achieves a hard-won poignancy.
HOW THE DEAD DREAM | By LYDIA MILLET | Counterpoint | 256 pages |$24 hardcover