Lydia Millet’s Post-Human Prose | The New Yorker


The novelist Lydia Millet once told an interviewer that when she first moved to New York, in 1996, she was “amazed” by how people were “relentlessly interested in exclusively the human self.” This myopia—a sort of “inarticulate, ambient smugness about everything”—wasn’t her creed. Millet, who now lives near Tucson, has written more than a dozen books of fiction, one of which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, but she works at the Center for Biological Diversity and holds a master’s in environmental policy. As in life, so in art. Increasingly, fiction studies the “arc of the private individual,” Millet told another interviewer: “The personal struggles of a self and the ultimate triumph of that self over the obstacles in its path.” But Millet is energized, instead, by how feelings are “intermeshed with abstract thought,” with “our place in the wider landscape.” Why, her work demands, are we afraid to die? What are the ethics of wanting what we want?

If both fiction and people are blinkered, self-stunned, perhaps they require a similar intervention. Millet, eschewing the arc of the private individual, also forgoes the novel’s traditional shape, in which tensions build to a climax. Her method is to churn up themes, generating a kind of mental weather, as if a book were less a trajectory than an atmosphere: something happens, and then something else happens; the cloudy design melts and shifts. “A Children’s Bible” (2020), for instance, subjects a group of spoiled vacationers to ordeals reminiscent of those in the Old and New Testaments. But what the scriptural correspondences mean—if they mean anything—never resolves. Like Joy Williams, Millet uses fiction to elegize the collapsing biosphere. Also like Williams, she has a raunchy, fanged wit, often aimed at human self-delusion. (“Let’s get divorced! said couples everywhere, excited.”) Unlike Williams, though, Millet never lets surrealism darken into delirium, and her misanthropy feels circumstantial, not cosmic. She’s a conservationist: her prose attends to “maples from Norway, mulberries from Asia, Siberian elm.” A reader will be smuggled facts about coral reefs, or learn the word “gymnosperm.” “Five hundred thirty million years ago,” one character says, “we find the first known footprints on dry land.”

Millet’s philosophical fixations include whether things are earned or simply given, as grace. She applies specific pressure to the problem of inheritance, and to the entwinement of privilege with responsibility. Her adult characters tend to be comfortable, and on the attractive side. (Mercifully, some of them are also on the self-effacing side: the protagonist of “Ghost Lights,” from 2011, reflects that “if he allowed for the margin of error created by social niceties, he would have to guess he was average-looking.”) For Millet, scant justice is to be found in existing distributions of beauty, wealth, and power, a situation that only inflames the question of what to do with one’s ill-gotten gains. In “Magnificence,” from 2012, a widow inherits a grand run-down house, its rooms crammed with dusty animal specimens. “A Children’s Bible” asks what today’s parents are leaving their offspring. (The apocalypse, is the answer.) Throughout, there’s a restless probing of the nature of freedom. Does it come from unfettering or relinquishing the ego? One character defines liberty as doing whatever you want, speaking of “that dream we all have. That, in a turn of a second, no matter what, we can act on an impulse.” Evie, a character lounging Zen-like on the beach, might beg to differ: “If you could be nothing,” she muses, “you could also be everything. Once my molecules had dispersed, I would be here forever. Free.”

“A Children’s Bible,” which was short-listed for the National Book Award, was forged in wrath. Millet wanted to honor “the anger of people who don’t yet run the world as they begin to bear witness to the effects of our negligence.” The book, narrated by Evie—think Greta Thunberg by way of “South Park”—melds an activist’s outrage with a teen-ager’s weapons-grade contempt for adults. A group of families convenes for the summer in a manse built by robber barons. The kids go feral; the grownups roam “in vague circuits beneath the broad beams, their objectives murky.” Then come storms, a plague, a Biblical flood. The parents, in an alcoholic haze, opt for denial: “Not science denial exactly—they were liberals. It was more of a denial of reality.” The children, left to fend for themselves, escape to a nearby farmhouse. As they try to survive and rebuild, the novel, which sounds preachy, somehow isn’t. Millet’s caustic humor wicks away sentimentality; her writing is so weightlessly lucid that it makes abstractions—both moral and metaphysical—feel concrete. One develops an almost unbearable tenderness for Jack, Evie’s younger brother. (“He was a sensitive little guy, sweet-natured. . . . He often had nightmares . . . dreams of hurt bunnies or friends being mean.”) But the parents are beyond redemption. Sickened by mold and hallucinating, Evie has a vision of them as “invalids,” with “problems attached to them like broken limbs.” The best they can hope for, from anyone, is a “pity that passed for love.”

In “Dinosaurs” (Norton), a new novel, Millet transposes her signal motifs into a gentler key. The book’s large-scale catastrophe is only as obvious as our own—which is to say, ecological ruin lurks in the background, but the story clings to characters’ muted, often deliberately stifled lives. A lonely man, Gil, moves into a house in Phoenix. He is handsome, embarrassingly wealthy, and desperate to be of use. He befriends a neighbor’s kid, who’s being bullied at school; takes up the cause of hawks and quail against a mystery poacher; and volunteers at a local women’s shelter. Throughout, Millet drops in gemlike descriptions of birds—phainopeplas that survive on a single berry, roadrunners that mate for life—and factoids about nature and species loss. The neighbor boy, Tom, shares Jack’s love of creatures great and small. “An ant could be smarter than you are,” he informs Gil sternly.

Potted summaries of Millet have a way of risking slander. Like “A Children’s Bible,” “Dinosaurs” is sharp and implacably funny; it evades the sanctimony you’d expect. Millet writes in the simple, enigmatic language of books for young people:

He sat on a barstool. It had a revolving seat, so he revolved.

One thinks of a kind of beginner’s literature for survivors of phantasmagoric American adulthood—people who know about barstools but not about real life. Millet’s imagination remains scaled to the geological; in “Dinosaurs,” she seems eager to disrupt readers’ rhythms, favoring brusque phrases over complete sentences. (“Impact was needed. In the situation.”) Her unerring ear for small talk is matched by her uncanny ability to deconstruct it:

“You have a lovely home,” he ventured.

“Oh! Yes. So do you.”

That was established now—they both had lovely homes. They’d bought them with money.

Yet, even half mesmerized, I wrestled with the work’s aura of equanimity—until the thought occurred that this strange, quiet text might be an allegory about how to greet the end with grace, how to prepare for your own extinction. “A Children’s Bible” emphasizes the parents’ cowardly retreat from responsibility. “We know we let you down,” intones one despicable mom. “But what could we have done, really?” Gil, by contrast, scans his surroundings, looking for small acts of service to perform. “He didn’t want to win,” Millet tells us, only “to be worthy.” If “A Children’s Bible” enshrines the radiant anger of the young, “Dinosaurs” is a primer on surrender. At one point, after fantasizing about birds joining the fight against climate change, Gil laughs at his own naïveté: “In the quiet,” he thinks, “you could let your thoughts roam. Villains and heroes. Bravery and sacrifice. You could conjure up anything.”

As tactics, resistance and denial both depend on conjuring up a hopeful story. Millet’s distrust of narrative may arise from her intimate understanding of its pleasures. Her novel skims the personal, at times dipping into various facets of the human self and its struggles. Gil is tested by his neighbors’ house. It’s open plan, which he knows because the wall facing him is constructed entirely of glass. The family of four who live there evoke mannequins in a “high-end department store”; the wife, Ardis, brings over a pie, apologizing to Gil for “our fish-tank reality show.” (They’d hoped to get the windows tinted, she explains.) Ardis, a magnetic psychotherapist, “had a certain exuberance,” Millet writes. “As though anything was possible. And she had nothing to hide.” The family embodies something like the allure of the illuminated self. Gil, meanwhile, refers to his house as “the castle,” which gets at his emotional defensiveness. He is mourning his ex-girlfriend, who left after fifteen years without so much as a goodbye. The lack of closure is a torment. Gil feels like “less than no one. Because no one, at least, contained possibility.”

“Dinosaurs” thus belongs to a cadre of recent novels that wrestle with the phenomenon of complex loss: grief that lingers after incomplete or ambiguous endings. These books, which include Christine Smallwood’s “The Life of the Mind” (2021) and Namwali Serpell’s “The Furrows” (2022), often link characters’ suffering to the creeping terminality of the natural world. They have their own iconography—ghosts, thresholds, twilight—and preoccupations: lives riven between past and present, language that fails, understanding that flickers just out of reach. In “Dinosaurs,” Gil’s unresolved loss, and the planet’s, contrasts with the bright, clean loss of Gil’s friend, Van Alsten, a trash-talking war veteran who likes basketball, hard liquor, and the ass of his wife, Connie. When Connie falls ill, Van Alsten gives her a kidney, despite the risk posed by his drinking, and enters a coma. The scenes in which loved ones bid him goodbye—once in a hospital room, when he’s taken off life support, and once at his memorial service—attain a crystalline heartbreak. “That a soul could be set free from a body,” Gil thinks. “The souls might gather in a host, flock together and wheel and spin. Funnel and disperse.” Perhaps no deaths are fair. But Van Alsten’s, at least, is noble.

Van Alsten’s stark ending grants his wife a complicated beginning. Searching for the bottom of ambiguous loss, Millet also offers ambiguous hope. It’s no accident that her book pays such homage to the things with feathers: paleontologists no longer believe “that all the dinosaurs had gone extinct sixty-six million years ago,” Gil says. “Only the ones that wouldn’t turn into birds.” But evolution is only ever a possibility, never a sure thing. The novel is both aubade and vesper. It implies that some people can’t escape the prisons of who they are. They will do their best “and still fail,” as Gil tells Ardis, describing himself. Yet others, he continues, in his head, may be “interrupted by an unexpected event—deliverance.” They may be “lifted up . . . swung out in giddy delight over glittering peaks.” The moment recalls Evie’s epiphany about the eternity waiting on the far side of ego loss: “Once my molecules had dispersed, I would be here forever.”

Millet has long located transcendence in the impersonal. Gil, like Evie, finds insight in a substance-induced fog—after he stumbles onto a spiky cholla plant, Ardis’s husband gives him Vicodin—which parts to reveal the apparition of “a tree in a forest of trees, where men grew from apes.” Millet’s novels draw solace from the idea that we are infinitely bigger than ourselves. They propose that beginnings are difficult to distinguish from endings, that “separateness had always been the illusion.” This enlightened, self-negating awareness lends “Dinosaurs” its sense of peace; yet I wondered whether Millet had finally ascended to a level of consciousness beyond her readers’ reach. I longed for the adolescent urgency of “A Children’s Bible,” the blood and nerve of individuals with fears and desires. When we last see Gil, he is aglow with his apprehension of the ramifying tree. On the beach, though, the thought of Evie’s brother abruptly wrenches her back to herself. Immortality—“particles that had once been others and now moved through us”—becomes less reassuring when its price is a loved one’s specificity. “That was the sad thing about my molecules,” Evie says, looking at Jack. “They wouldn’t remember him.” ♦


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