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After a year of contentious elections, natural disasters and polarized opinions, it's no wonder the current mood seems to be focused on aftermath. Picking up the pieces and making sense of drastic change are both necessary and cathartic reactions, whether in life or in literature. Many readers may overcome the confusion by looking for fiction that affirms their beliefs and offers a healthy dose of escapism. Others choose to commune with the unending chaos around them.
Everyone's Pretty, Lydia Millet's fourth novel (following 2002's My Happy Life), succeeds remarkably (for the most part) at blending realism and escapism. Taken at surface level, its presentation of over-the-top characters placed in bizarre situations is supremely wacky, but underneath is an astute examination of how contemporary society fosters alienation and loneliness so acute that it takes outsized actions to allow any possibility of driving the demons away.
Over three days in Los Angeles, the kaleidoscopic narrative brings together five individuals whose lives already intersect but grow further tangled and, in some cases, irrevocably frayed. At this quintet's heart is Dean Decetes, a pornographer by choice and messianic vessel by delusion, who spends most of his time in varying degrees of drunken stupor. (But then, if you thought you were a messiah, wouldn't you?) His bizarre, tilting-at-windmills personality is on display from the first as he muses over his decision to stay gaunt: "Fat men were often powerful. . . . Their girth did not appear unseemly, flanked by the pillars and arches of state. Thin men, however, were the revolutionaries and the seers. . . . Emaciation and longevity went hand in hand."
Decetes's desire for immortality is thwarted and perverted -- sometimes literally -- at every turn. He is beaten to a pulp on more than one occasion, fired from his job as a stringer for a smut magazine and, after a stint in jail, inexplicably acquires a sex-obsessed midget for a mascot. None of these things endears him to his sister, Bucella. She desperately struggles to be pious and moral, gives serious consideration to joining a convent, but only succeeds at being clueless -- especially with regard to her not-so-secret crush on her boss at her desultory workplace, Statistical Diagnostics.
The other main players include Alice, whose promiscuity is underlaid by deep depression and tangible loneliness; Phillip, a quasi-masochistic Christian Scientist bonded in an unconventional marriage where self-denial rules his life, but not his wife's; and Ginny, a teenage math prodigy fueled by formulas and parental loathing, whose escape from her parents leads to the obligatory loss of innocence, although never approaching a clichéd level.
Everyone's Pretty could have declined into pointless farce, but Millet doesn't pre-judge or pepper the narrative with outside preconceptions. Morality is a shifting concept, but in the end it's left to the individual to determine how much or how little he or she possesses. That's why none of the characters can truly be laughed at; the situations they find themselves in veer from hilarious to cringe-inducing, but Millet never makes any of them the butt of the world's current joke.
The scene that catapults Ginny into flight has been staged many times before, but Millet expertly demonstrates how humiliating it must be for a teenage girl to have her mother show up in class, accusing her of all manners of depravity. She uses all the senses to depict Ginny's horror at seeing her mother "in her orange dressing gown with egg down the front and the rabbit slippers," even depicting the "rotten-egg gas" that assaults the girl's nose. Such descriptions add a vivid pungency, making the inherent embarrassment even worse and the scene successful.
By keeping authorial distance, Millet lets the characters tell their own stories and interact in increasingly twisted ways until finally the climax arrives -- or does it? The group of five go their separate ways, some truly moving on while others, like Decetes, find their own path to transcendence and glory. Still, one wonders whether each respective journey is really over. Millet ends the narrative but doesn't tie up every loose end; some remain suspended, while others are simply let go.
Paradoxically, Millet's exaggerated vision of the world offers a closer view of reality than would a more straightforward one. With a sharp eye for small details, a keen sense of the absurd and strong empathy for its creations, Everyone's Pretty is both prism and truth.
Reviewed by Sarah Weinman
Copyright 2005, The Washington Post Co. All Rights Reserved.