This is the first book of a trilogy that circles around the concept/theme of extinction. The second novel, Ghost Lights, was released last year. The third, Magnificence, is still pending (scheduled for Nov release). The protagonists in the second and third books are minor characters from the first book. Millet's advocacy with endangered species and her graduate degrees in environmental policy and economics inform this novel without clamminess or preachy rhetoric. Her deft, precise language is lyrically noir and philosophical, and is plaited with satire and pathos, nuance and caricature. The dream-like narrative is ripe with imagery from the animal world. The motifs of absence, destruction and obsolescence reflect the moral decay that inhabits a capitalistic society in all its latent anxieties. It is also a rich story about the vicissitudes of the human condition.
Since childhood, T. has been a mercenary disciple of authority and financial institutions. His idols were the statesmen and presidents of legal tender. This led to a cunning acquisitiveness, scamming neighbors out of their money with his phony charities and by hemorrhaging money from bullied classmates in return for protecting them. In college, he learns the key to success, while remaining emotionally apart from others. He is the frat brother always handy with sage advice, and renders aid when they get in serious trouble. His vices are almost nonexistent, but he gladly provides rides for his drinking buddies. Everything T. does is calculated toward success. As an adult, he becomes a wealthy real estate developer, acquiring some of his clients from his former friends grateful for his past support. Money is T.'s religion.
"Currency infused all things, from the small to the monolithic. And to be a statesman the first thing needed was not morals, public service, or the power of rhetoric; the first thing needed was money. Because finally there was only a single answer. As there was only one intelligence residing in a self, as trees grew upward toward the sun, as women lived outward and men walked in insulation to the end of their lives: when all was said and done, from place to place and country to country, forget the subtleties of right and wrong, the struggle toward affinity. In the lurch and flux, in all the variation and the same, it was only money that could set a person free."
OK, you get the drift. T. worshipped money.
A few unfortunate events out of T.'s control happen. His father leaves his mother to embrace his same sex love openly, and his mother gradually declines from that end point. Furthermore, he accidentally hits and kills a coyote on the desert highway in Nevada, which plagues him periodically and is the genesis of a sea change within him.
"He saw the coyote's face, ...eyes half-closed, the long humble lines of her mouth. Any animal could be gentle while it was busy dying...That was hardly a mark of distinction. But the sorrow persisted, as though he were worrying an open cut." Eventually, he is compelled to get a dog, one that he forms a bond with over time.
Then, T. falls in love, which aids in refining his disposition from aloof and isolated to engaged and attached.
"This was how he lost his autonomy--he had moved along at a steady pace and then he was flung."
But the experience is truncated by a chilling event, and T. subsequently becomes obsessed with endangered species, particularly from learning that the paving of one of his subdivisions had displaced an almost extinct species of kangaroo rats. He becomes preoccupied by the repercussions of real estate development on animals, the expansion of cities and the utopias of convenience and consumption:
"Under their foundations the crust of the earth seemed to be shifting and loosening, the falling away and curving under itself."
T. laments the biological blight caused by economic growth, mourns the progress of civilization. Tormented, he bemoans the extinction of animals, dying in sweeps and categories. After learning locksmith trade secrets, he starts breaking into zoos at night. T. doesn't free them from their cages; he merely wants to watch them. The force of a spiritual crisis arrests him with the same possessive absorption that money used to do.
The last section of the novel concerns T.'s journey to Belize, where he owns some property he's developing into a resort. It reads with an ephemeral, ethereal quality, like a mystical epitaph, with Heart of Darkness tendrils infused throughout, and the reminder of the cyclical nature of man's imperialism.
"When a thing became very scarce, that was when it was finally seen to be sublime and lovely."
Encompassing, imaginative, and meditative, this is a must-read for literature lovers.
on December 25, 2014
Incredible, amazing read. Such a powerful story, one that still has me reflecting. It's told in a remarkable way, feeling as if each word was carefully chosen for the perfect effect.
The main character T. (short for Thomas), seems born with a love for money, the mere touch of it, and is drawn to the great men who's pictures he sees on the bills. He grows up to become a land developer, quickly learning the rules of the game. He makes a habit of studying the real motivations behind his investors, often finding them simple and brutish. After he develops land in a native jungle he becomes drawn to what he calls "last animals," those whose lives are so close to extinction that soon they will no longer exist.
While this may be the general theme of this novel, it is so much more. It is about the love of women, of wildness and the losses we all encounter and mourn. I don't think I've ever highlighted so much in a book. The intelligent and philosophical writing penetrated my heart, will I ever be the same? I simply adore this writer and this book.
on May 24, 2016
I’m really struggling with how to rate this one. Lydia Millet is undeniably brilliant, and reading a novel like this makes me feel like I’m being dropped into the mind of someone smarter and more insightful than I could ever hope to be. Personally, I gravitate toward that kind of challenge. It’s a privilege, really, to bear witness to such an incredible mind.
But if I’m being honest, I didn’t love this book. I loved her themes. I loved the second half of the story. But I didn’t love all of it. For me, the moments of brilliance — and there are plenty of them — make it all worth it, but I have to acknowledge my ambivalence throughout.
How the Dead Dream follows follows T., a wealthy young real estate investor, throughout his isolated life, from childhood through his 20s. For the most part he’s a callous, calculating, unlikable person — until the night that he hits a coyote with his car and it changes his life. Transformed by the experience, which allows him to acknowledge his deep existential loneliness for the first time, T. finally allows himself to open up to others, but then tragedy strikes just as he starts to fall in love.
It’s how T. deals with his grief that’s so fascinating. Feeling a deep connection to both nature and the inevitability of death, T. begins breaking into zoos to spend his time among the endangered animals. There, he observes them and feels a sense of oneness with them, connecting to their aloneness, their resolute nature, their indifference to the humans who surround them, and their proximity to the end of the world.
In telling T.’s story, Millet creates a deep, powerful meditation on mankind’s relationship with animals and undeniable vulnerability when confronted by nature. Ambivalence aside, I’m still looking forward to reading more of Millet’s work.
on January 30, 2013
Before reading this book, I had no idea who this author was. Yet, within a dozen pages, I was coming to understand that I was reading something quite special. The fact that I should be so impressed by Millet's writing is all the more amazing when I reflect that the protagonist of the book is a devoted capitalist--hardly a person I would normally be drawn to. Throughout most of the book, he is simply referred to a `T'. Yet T's transformation is both poetic and spectacular.
As a boy T's principle passion is to `collect' money and stash it under his pillow at night. He receives a visceral thrill as he studies the lithographic etching on the American dollar bill. In college, he is a friend to all, but intimate with no one. It is `T' who is the designated driver, `T' who sorts out his friend's indiscretions and messy relationships. `T' himself avoids all youth's usual excesses, in favor of focusing on the market, real estate and mapping out his destiny. He is enamored with a vision of high rises, new highways, bright lights, holiday resorts, retirement homes in the desert, the creation of which will become the source of his material wealth and self-worth.
It is worth noting that the protagonist of "How the Dead Dream" is a male, and the writer female. It is the most convincing cross-gender writing I have ever come across. Never once did I doubt the authenticity of the male voice of `T'.
But what makes this novel so good? The writing to be sure, which is extremely lyrical at times, and the psychological insights Millet has which are quite breath-taking. In the end, what is most impressive, is the journey she takes the reader on. We meet `T' arch-capitalist, without a soul it seems, at first, but then gradually we see a change take place. It begins when he is driving at night and hits a coyote. He stops his car to check on it. It's not yet dead. He feels obligated to carry it off road--even though he doesn't know what to expect--after all, it might bite him. He stays with it until it takes its last breath. That moment changes him, though he doesn't realize it at the time.
Later `T' who, till this time, has never surrendered himself to anyone emotionally meets Beth, the love of his life, but tragedy strikes, and that relationships lasts only a short time. His father, a man in his sixties, suddenly, and without explanation, leaves his wife. `T' does his best to console his mother, and has her live with him. She develops early dementia. The scenes of `T', the son, speaking with a mother who doesn't even recognize him, in fact thinks he is a criminal, are heart-wrenching.
Quite unexpectedly--to me, at least--`T' then develops an obsession with endangered animals, going to great lengths to be in their company. For him, they come to represent the world condition, the ultimate fate of each individual and each species, creatures near their end and alone, desperately alone. Some of the novel's most memorable moments take place as `T' stands eye-to-eye with some of these forlorn and mighty creatures.
This might help explain the otherwise quite obscure cover of the book: it is a close up of an elephant's eye.
I did not read Millet's book in one sitting--I never do, but I could very easily imagine myself making an exception for this book. It is that compelling, that beautifully written, that filled with compassion, longing and even humor. It's one of the best things I've read in years.
I have a new favorite author!
on March 4, 2012
The first of the two published volumes forming a trilogy. The main character is placed in context and then we follow his emotional, moral, and physical travels. Uneven in part, earnest about the environment, and cynical about the wealthy, a clear perspective emerges. It is, therefore, a valuable and interesting commencement of the projected trilogy.
on August 9, 2014
This is a beautiful, haunting, wake-up call, in a different way than Daniel Quinn's "Ishmael". Highly recommended by any readers of Chuck Palahniuk or Kurt Vonnegut as well, though it stands on its own as well. I wish this was a movie.
There are a lot of well crafted contemporary novels coming down the pike about family problems, social crises, etc. and about 99% of them strike me as superfluous, self-aggrandizing exercises in which the author wants to show the reader his or her creative and intellectual might. The final result is mediocre and flaccid.
Happily, this is not the case with Lydia Millet, whose point of view is one of the most unusual, and I daresay genius, I've come across since Magnus Mills' Restraint of Beasts.
In her first novel (I will now eagerly read her other five) she has written a grotesque fable with the sensibility and pungent sense of humor found in 30 Rock and Arrested Development.
Here Millet's novel focuses on T. who at an early age develops and articulates a Machiavellian view of the world to rationalize his insatiable appetite for greed and unrestrained capitalistic enterprise. Imagine Jack Donaghy expertly played by Alec Baldwin in 30 Rock inhabiting the body of a five year old and you'll understand T.'s psychological underpinnings.
We watch T.'s devilish entrepreneurial enterprises in high school as he uses extortion to protect a sad sack kid from the bullies who beat him and steal his lunch money every day at school. Even more glorious is T.'s justification of the extortion to the bullied kid's mother. Her every question is counteracted with a high school boy expert in the ways of legalistic sophistry.
As T. grows up and excels in real estate, using his predatory insight into the minds of his clients/victims to establish his empire, he has an unexpected breach in his life when he runs over a coyote. Seeing the dying, suffering animal ignites a spark of humanity inside his soul and with his heart cracked open a series of mishaps afflict him that blow up what he had believed would be a well-controlled existence of exploiting others. Instead, his world crumbles around him and he seeks connection with an obsessive sympathy for animals that compels him to break into zoos.
There is an eerie fable at work here that reminds me of the aforementioned Restraint of Beasts. The fable is fueled by its own whacky, genius logic that takes the reader to strange places--places far different than the banal, familiar landscapes most novelists dwell on. Millet is an original voice in fiction, never sanctimonious, never glib, never going for the cheap laugh. She is a novelist of the highest order. Highly recommended.
on March 1, 2008
"My Happy Life" is arguably one of the finest novels written in the last twenty years and if Lydia Millet had written nothing else, her place in the pantheon of authors would be secure because of it.
Her fifth novel "Oh Pure and Radiant Heart" is wildly erratic and thematically uneven though there are written passages of uncommon beauty. Millet is nothing if not a writer capable of producing cogent, thoughtful and gorgeous prose.
And now there is "How the Dead Dream," Millet's sixth novel and one which combines the outright thundering emotionality of "My Happy Life" and the absurdities of "Oh Pure and Radiant Heart."
"T" (we never know his real name as in "My Happy Life" we never know the "heroine's") is a Real Estate developer who has had a lifelong fascination with Cash: saving it, hording it and later...making it: "...throughout high school he also kept a small safe in his room. And on occasions when he felt rebuffed...he would retire there and carefully remove the portion of his stash he always kept nearby."
T realized early on in his life that he had a facility with separating people (kids, adults) from their money. In one instance he acts as a middleman between a grammar school target and his bullies: "Mrs. G., we were lucky they took the deal at all. They really like beating on him, Mrs. G/ it's all they live for. They didn't want to take the bribe at first but I convinced them."
As T grew, turned his avocation for making Cash into a vocation in the Real Estate game, his parents seemed to shrink from him: his father leaving one day and though T tracks him down later in the novel, his father has moved on emotionally...away from T and his mother.
Though it is natural for a Mother to let go of her children, untie the apron strings as it were. T's mother: "In ceasing to be a child, he thought, he had disappointed her so fully that she came to believe he was someone else entirely...but he was no longer hers and due to that she was no longer his either."
So, T builds a life around his business and his insatiable ambition ("What you needed more than anything, for the purposes of ambition was certainty, was a belief the rest of being, the entirety of the cosmos should not be allowed to divert you from the cause--the chief and primary cause--which was clearly--yourself.") his dog and his Mother who begins to lose her touch with reality through the tragedy of Alzheimer's. Then he meets Beth.
Millet, as in "Oh Pure and Radiant Heart," introduces themes that on first sight have nothing to do with the narrative flow of the subject at hand: animals well on their way to extinction, the efficacies of Zoos and the Natural weeding process of Hurricanes and Tornadoes and even closes the novel with T adrift in the throes of a Natural disaster.
Does this all meld together perfectly? No, but the basic T story is interesting and well written enough to hold your interest. And more to the point, T himself is quite interesting: vain, driven, money crazy, venal even yet humane and concerned with the future of the Earth and also with finding Love.
Millet is not completely successful here; certainly not as successful as she is in "My Happy Life" whose narrative flow is perfection and in which Millet's point of view is secure and complete. Yet , "How the Dead Dream" is certainly a qualified success: full of flavor, full of love...ripe with the sweetness and tartness of a perfect, in-season fruit.
on November 18, 2015
"How the Dead Dream" is a surprising dramatization of how one man's consciousness evolves from utilitarian concerns to philosophical insight. The protagonist, T (short for Thomas, although his name seldom appears; especially in the latter half of the novel, he is indicated by pronouns), begins his life fascinated by money: its visual appearance and tactile qualities, the many means by which it might be accumulated, the important differences it can make when effectively disbursed. A series of traumatic personal experiences, however, turns his mind from the ways of getting and spending, and toward matters of existential significance. Intimate instances of disappearance and death de-center T's world, yet it is the process of extinction--or rather, his awareness that this phenomenon is well underway and all around us--that changes his worldview.
The existential truth T recognizes is simple and profound: life is always in the process of passing away. Except by not acting in ways that tend to accelerate extinction, no reformation of behavior or attitude will enable us to avoid the inevitable endpoint of global death. The triumph of "How the Dead Dream" is its success in communicating this dire truth without becoming ponderous, gloomy, or despondent. Still, its vision is dark; defeat is foreordained. The only way to escape despair is to shift one's conception of the predicament: to think of it not as a contest with a loser/winner outcome, but to accept it as a natural process infinitely more powerful than human intention, or desire.
Nothing in Millet's premise is objectionable and her rendition of narrative events is plausible, crisp, insightful, both smart and wise, and often humorous (one perfect scene roughly three-quarters into the book is worth the price of admission all on its own). At the same time, much of what happens feels not just unexpected but downright strange; and T's response, both to specific circumstances and in total, seems unusual--not just idiosyncratic but so weird as to seem forced (by the author) to the end of illustrating a theme. The grief he feels after hitting a coyote with his car and watching it die seems exceptionally disproportionate--unless one reads his response as a welling-up of repressed emotion that is more properly attached to his father's renunciation of their family and his mother's encroaching dementia. This incident occurs early in T's movement from deal-maker and unsentimental "fixer" to existential philosopher, and may be read as the precipitating accident that turns his consciousness from matters associated with the former to ruminations more typical of the latter. As such, it is acceptable in terms of craft, however surprising it seems in terms of verisimilitude. The problem--if it is a problem rather than the novel's point--is that T's strongly compassionate responses to the many sufferings and disappearances of various animals tend to equal in emotional force his reactions to personal losses of human beings, including the sudden death of his fiancée. Are the lives of animals, both individual and species, equal to human lives? For T, the answer seems to be "yes."
One might argue that this equivalence is wholly appropriate, given the novel's premise that "we are all in this together" (my cliché; Millet's language is better): that humans are a part of nature and that when nature dies, people, too, are dying. However, to know something is true is not the same as feeling it to be so. As sincerely, albeit reluctantly, as one might acknowledge the truth that universal extinction is inevitable, it is difficult to take this truth to heart and carry it in one's consciousness moment-by-moment. Like the foreknowledge of one's own death--always impending, swiftly forgotten--it is a truth we repress in order to live a while longer. T's tragedy--and, thanks to the author, his fate--is his inability to repress this awareness. Is it wisdom, or morbid sentimentality? A bit of both, perhaps, more or less so depending on one's ideas of human exceptionalism vis-à-vis species-levelling. By any measure, it is a cruel knowingness that changes T's life and presently ends it.
on January 12, 2008
After reading Lydia Millet's wonderful masterpiece OH PURE AND RADIANT HEART last year, I quickly got my hands on all her previous books and started waiting impatiently for her next. It has finally arrived. HOW THE DEAD DREAM, while not as epic, as sprawling or as colorful as Millet's previous novel, is still a powerfully affecting, extremely effective novel filled with the author's typically gorgeous prose. Millet's books tend to be offbeat, and each is so different from every other that while you never know what you're going to get from her, you can always be sure it will be well worth your time getting it. HOW THE DEAD DREAM is no exception and only further confirms Millet's status as a bold and important novelist.