Customer Reviews: Ghost Lights: A Novel
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This second book of Millet's trilogy, following the intrepid How the Dead Dream, centers on middle-aged IRS bureaucrat, Hal Lindley, Susan's husband, both who were minor characters in the first book. Susan works for T., the protagonist of book one, the man who is missing in Belize, and presumed dead. You don't have to read the first book to engage with the second, but it adds more background and material on several of the characters (especially T.), and some more dimension and history on the story as a whole.

The only writer I can think of that reminds me of Millet is Paul Auster, with his postmodern, darkly comic and surreal novels of characters earnestly struggling, and yet with an absurd haplessness, too, to comprehend their lives. They suffer from disorienting delusions, so that their self-directed journeys are fevered with mortifications. Millet is somewhat quirkier, even, and without the assembled, careful structure of Auster. She is less antiseptic than Auster, with an undertone of gallows humor.

After Hal comes to the conclusion that Susan is having an affair with her preppy office paralegal, he decides to play the potential hero, offering to travel to Belize to find T. Stern, who has been missing since he went on a boat trip with a guide up the Monkey River. Several issues plague Hal, besides Susan's affair. First, he feels like he is responsible for forcing Susan to suppress her bohemian, free-love spirit that she possessed when they first met in the 60's (it is now 1994, dated by the death of Kurt Cobain).

Secondly, and more importantly, he is emotionally choked with guilt and pain about his daughter, Casey, who had an accident when she was 17 and is now a twenty-six-year-old paraplegic. Apparently, she once had an intimate affair with T., (if you read the first book, you get the full story), but she isn't sharing the details. T. was responsible for her new and improved outlook--her shedding of cynicism, self-enmity, and former scorn for all of existence. Now that Casey is engaged with life, she has taken on an acrimonious, mocking ex-cop paraplegic boyfriend, and an appalling telephone job that Hal found out about inadvertently.

Hal's feelings of profound loss over Casey, and his frequent interior dialogues about her "before" and "after" state, as well as the shock of his wife's infidelity, crushes him with an awareness of his own obsolescence. This keeps with the themes of extinction started in the first book. Although it is animal extinction that was How the Dead Dream's concern, there has always been a subtext of human dissolution and annihilation.

"...suddenly he was older and part of the architecture, its tangibility and the impulse behind it, its failings and strengths. The heavy installation had lost their majesty and seemed temporary, even shoddy, with a propensity for decline."

"He was a surplus human, a product of a swollen civilization. He was a widget among men."

Hal's adventures in Belize include breakfast:

"Eggs arrived, with a slice of papaya to remind him of his location. Lest he mistake them for Hackensack eggs or eggs in Topeka, the papaya came along to announce they were tropical eggs, to remind him that congratulations!-he was on a tropical vacation."

Hal meets a German couple named Hans and Gretel (seriously!), (with twin blonde young "cornboys" obsessed with table tennis and video games), who are resolutely cheerful and beautiful to look at, and radiate a glowing bliss. "Such Germans were irritating. On the one hand they were an unpleasant reminder of Vikings and Nazis, on the other hand you envied them."

Hans, an avionics genius and specialist in something called tactical sensor networks, is well-connected to the military, and after hearing Hal's reason for coming to this island, organizes a search for T., with the U.S. armed forces, the Belize Defence Force Cadets, and NATO on board. Hal joins Hans and the muscle bound military men, and has his own Heart of Darkness trip through the jungle, as T. did in the first book.

This next quote, although not plot progressing, is an example of Millet's sly, dark wit as channeled by Hal's interior thoughts:

"Armed forces personnel were not as bad as cops, when it came to the aggregate probability of antisocial personality disorder...They were not homicidal so much as Freudian; they liked to feel the presence of a constant father. And their fringe benefits included fit and muscular bodies."

Millet's charismatic wit blends with her piercing, philosophical insights and compassion to portray a man on the brink of an existential crisis. What is especially endearing about Hal Lindley is his humanity as a parent, ripe and heartfelt with touching contradictions. The ending is surreal and mystifying, with a touch of the bizarre, a soul-searing finale that makes me impatient for book three. Magnificence is scheduled for November release.
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on January 7, 2012
This is my first book review for Amazon and I am jumping in here only because I so loved this book I wanted to see it get another 5 star rating.Others have delved further into the plot and I suggest that readers forgo the "book review" below as it contains an ending spoiler which I would have hated to have uncovered ahead of time. This story is so beautifully constructed that I am going back now and rereading upon finishing in order to appreciate the interconnected pieces and subtly placed hints that carry one to the amazing ending. This is an intellectual journey of an extremely ordinary person coming to find his extraordinary self. The layers of insight revealed relentlessly as we travel with Hal mirror everything from the horrific state of the world we live in and our means of shutting out the terrible pain of what it means to live, love and lose, to the embracing of one's own mortality and the inevitable dispassionate judgement of no god greater than one's own soul.
Yes the book demands that you slow down and read each sentence more carefully than you might normally do, but what rewards await your diligence! This was a feast and I enjoyed every minute...I laughed out loud on the airplane when I started it, because Hal's insight is wicked funny, and later got up in the middle of the night to finish it...I just had to know where it was going, and I was sorry to have to put it down in the end.
For me it was a relief to come across a read like this, original, revealing, stimulating, challenging, funny...if you like to push up against the boundaries of your comfort zone, and end up feeling like you just went somewhere profound in your armchair then this might be a good one for you.
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on May 28, 2012
An I.R.S. agent, Hal, goes looking for his wife's missing boss in a Central American jungle. Why? Because he thinks his wife is having an affair with a paralegal who works in the boss's office? Maybe, maybe for more complicated reasons. The boss, "T." disappeared on a trip to Belize. Hal's wife is frantic. Hal, drunk at a party, announces he will go to Belize and find T. Hal's wife and his paraplegic daughter, are amazed and grateful. Hal is stunned by his own decision, but "what the hell?" During his sojourn in the jungles and resorts and jails and bars and house parties of Belize, Hal reflects on his life, his character, his failures as a husband and father, and life in general. He meets a German couple and their two young sons. "Hans and Gretel" befriend him and, incredibly, volunteer to help him find the missing (dead?) T. Hal ruminates on the German character; determined, efficient, productive, and goes skinny dipping with the beautiful wife. They have sex on the beach, while the husband enlists the aid of the American Coast Guard, and Belize military cadets in a search for T. Hal's reflections on the human condition, his own failings, his newly formed aspirations, are sincere, touching, pathetic, and humorous all at once. Maybe this sounds too cerebral, but Lydia Millet weaves this tale so deftly, with such sly humor and such dead-on pathos, with such terrible insights, and suspense, that the book simply won't be put down. One reviewer here criticized the novel for not having a plot. Wrong. The plot is one man's journey to a new comprehension of his being. It is an engrossing journey.
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on December 5, 2011
An edgy, side splitting novel of a mild-mannered government bureaucrat who fears that he has been cuckolded by "Robert the Paralegal". Subsequently, he goes through a number of existential crises that lead him to the hotels and jungles of the Carribean, where he is confronted by a pair of "neurotic bohemians" and by a family of "aggressive German tourists" in his search for a venture capitalist gone missing. The scenarios in this book are written tongue-in-cheek, and bring to mind a WASPish Woody Allen/Larry David misadventure. I should add that there is a very dark side as well, but this only adds to the novel's edginess. Highly recommended for a very pleasurable reading experience.
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on March 4, 2012
This sequel, and a second in a trilogy, surpasses the first volume while featuring a minor character in the first book who tracks down the trilogy's main figure in a tropical island. The narrative moves briskly forward, the writing is clear if a little literary, and the atmosphere well rendered. It can be read on its own as a new version of the Heart of Darkness.
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Attuned to the winds of change that roar unexpectedly through the most ordinary of lives, Millet dissects the interior landscape of IRS employee Hal Lindley in Southern California circa 1994. Susan and Hal's placid, quiet world has already been shaken by an accident that renders their daughter, Casey, a paraplegic. By habit, Hal measures daily life in small increments, the surface of domesticity most recently ruffled by the disappearance of Susan Lindley's ambitious boss somewhere in South America. Susan anxiously awaits the return of "T." in the flourishing real estate business with the only other employee, Robert, an enthusiastic Yale graduate, all business on hold. Unsettled, Hal ruminates on the minutiae of marriage to Susan, fueling the vague fears and suspicions of an insecure man learning too late he might have been sleepwalking through his days. In a burst of jealousy and rebellion, Hall volunteers to go to South America in search of the missing young mogul.

Burning with shame at the duplicity he has discovered on the home front, Hal embarks on an otherworldly quest as the pieces of his life fall into place far from the familiar parameters of home. With the sleight of hand of a true storyteller, Millet's protagonist escapes the confines of his own limitations with an urgency that propels him into a dimension of consciousness that is both enlightening and tragic. This is a conventional life examined, the secret corridors of Hal's psyche thrown open to the howling winds of new experience. Memories of home blend with the novelty of adventure, all enriched by Hal's discoveries, though he cannot avoid paying the high tariff on wisdom: "He had turned out to be a hothouse flower- a hothouse flower from the first world that wilted in the third." The quietly forceful Millet explores Hal's newly-awakened interior world, an introspective man assaulted by truths that had thus far eluded him, caught in the extremes of T's failed enterprise, slyly delivering her coup de grace in a deceptively simple tale that might leave you breathless in recognition. Luan Gaines/2011.
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on November 28, 2011
Millet in the first five pages packs more witty, original, insightful observations and metaphors than most writers might do in an entire novel. After a steady diet of such fare, paragraph after paragraph, with no nuance between what merits such deliberate treatment and what might just move the story along: well, it felt to me like sitting down to a dinner where every dish is loaded with buttery contrast of flavors. That's my main quibble with the book. A minor one is how Millet gives the protagonist first a job of drudgery, a wife who might be having an affair--who is certainly distant emotionally--then a damaged car from hitting a curb, an adult daughter who is a parapeligic from a childhood accident--who then Millet has to make into a phone sex worker, which the dad discovers by overhearing conversations? That last bit is where I felt like things had gone plot-wise over the top. When Hal the protagonist breaks free of such a heavy gravitational pull--he heads to Belize to find his wife's missing boss/maybe lover in a modern knight errant, quixotic mission of discovery then the sometimes painful humor zings.
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on February 13, 2013
In Lydia's Millet's last novel, How the Dead Dream, we leave the protagonist, T, lost in a jungle in Belize, quite possibly dead. The scene of her new novel starts at a dog kennel where Susan, the secretary of T, has come to retrieve T's dog whose owner, everyone has come to fear, may no longer be alive.

With Susan is her middle-aged husband, Hal. Hal is scarcely mentioned in the previous novel but, in Ghost Lights, he becomes Millet's protagonist. Once again Millet surprises the reader by choosing an unlikely individual to tell her story: a very ordinary man, almost an everyman, a mere IRS bureaucrat, who yet is complex, fully-fleshed and strangely endearing.

Hal is a flawed man, only too aware of his own mediocrity, married to a woman who is probably too good for him. At the same, Hal has just come to realize that Susan may be unfaithful to him. They have a grown daughter, Casey, who, as a teenager, was badly injured in a car accident and now lives as a paraplegic. Hal, quite illogically, has always felt responsible for the accident, and a sense of mourning, and regret over `things that might have been' has dominated his life since.

Drunk, to a degree he has not know since his youth, Hal declares that he personally will go to the Belize resort where T was last seen, and find Susan's missing boss. His motives are far from noble. He sees this as an opportunity to escape, if only briefly, the feelings of betrayal, mourning, and ineffectiveness that have become almost too much for him to bear. He cares little for T personally. He will grieve only as far as politeness requires if the man is never found. But Hal shares the story of T with some German tourists who eagerly join the mission to find him. With supernatural German efficiency, they organize a search party. Millet's descriptions of the German couple (Hansel and Gretel--I kid you not) and their two bronze-skinned boys are some of the funniest things I've read in a long time. They provide much welcome comic relief in an otherwise melancholy tale.

Millet's writing always skirts alongside the dark edges of humanity, but never without compassion, often with humour and always with love for her central characters. In How the Dead Dream, the theme of extinction. and the sadness over the final days of things, is central. The theme returns in a surprising way in Ghost Lights, culminating in one of the most memorable death scenes I have ever read.

Definitely worth the read.
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on December 31, 2012
I enjoyed this story and Millet's excellent writing. There was enough ambiguity in the characters to keep me guessing, and Millet has some interesting and humorous takes on the modern world. It's not a comedy by any means, but my favorite parts are where she gets rough around the edges and makes me laugh. I would have given five stars, but she gets a little too philosophical for me at times, and the ending left me cold. I hear this is a second book of a trilogy, but I didn't know this at the time, and anyways doesn't excuse an unsatisfying ending in my opinion. I don't need all ends neatly wrapped, but the conclusion just didn't work well for me.
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on January 23, 2015
Ever meet one of those mediocre people that never risk anything, but are cynical of everyone else that does? These people give the impression they could be fabulous if they wanted to, but somehow it's beneath them.

This is Hal, the main character in Lydia Millet's novel Ghost Lights.

Did Millet set out to have such an unlikeable protagonist? I don't know. There are so many dead ends and false starts in this novel this reader got the impression the author had no idea what was going on in her book. I sure didn't.

Hal's daughter is a paraplegic. His wife's employer has gone missing in Central America. Hal and his wife are looking after his three-legged dog. Hal thinks his wife is having an affair with a colleague. Hal decides he will go and look for his wife's missing employer. Once in Central America he enlists the help of a couple on vacation from Germany. Hal has sex with the wife. While searching in the jungle for the missing employer there's an indication of a rebel encampment. A gay fighter pilot bombs the camp. Hal has finds his wife's employer having a mid-life crisis on a deserted beach.

For me nothing computes, nothing connects. It's like the author threw stuff in as she went along wondering how it would play out. When it didn't, she abandoned it.

When I read a novel like this I often ask myself what am I missing? Are there metaphors or symbolism I'm just too dumb to get?

Guess what? I don't care.
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