Each time I read one, I spend some time reminding myself that this particular one was written by that same author. Really? I ask myself. Really! I answer.
But despite their stylistic or tonal disparities, each book is about the the same thing: the way that humans are destroying the world while building new worlds to hide from themselves the devastation already in their wake.
In other words, each book is about Los Angeles.
Magnificence is third in a trilogy, each entry focusing on a different character. I read the last one first and the middle one second. I’m waiting for the first one from the library.
When the world is ending, you don’t need to worry about narrative chronology.
These characters are homely in its most ordinary sense. And they are troubled by their ordinariness. So they think a lot about it–hence some pages that, if you’re looking for “action” and “plot,” you’ll be testy.
But there is a bit of a plot: Susan learns that her husband, Hal, has been killed in a senseless robbery in Central America. Susan has been cheating on Hal for years, ever since their daughter Casey was paralyzed in a car accident. (An accident with which Casey copes so much better than her parents that I want a whole book just about her.) At first Susan manages her guilt, her distance from Casey, and her professional confusion in a more or less realistic fictional environment.
But shortly into the welter, she becomes a character of borderline surrealism–one of those contemporary fiction moves that mooshes realism and postmodernism together to mystify readers who want a consistent genre, please, just one genre, please, i don’t care what you do with it just stick with a single genre.
She serendipitously inherits from a mysterious rich uncle a Pasadena mansion full of dead animals. Taxidermied and displayed in every room. A mansion. With a tantalizing missing basement. And hundreds of specimens from all over the world, with rooms dedicated to each region and painted accordingly.
A frozen simulation of the earth’s inhabitants.
Susan begins to resolve her grief by restoring to bright, glorious post-life hundreds of dead animal skins. Creating a dead world that replaces the one that humans have killed.
This trilogy is at least in part a eulogy for human’s destructive embrace of earth. In its culmination, Susan’s personal loss merges with a loss of global scale. One human life is equivalent to hundreds of species, thousands of animal lives.
In the previous book, Ghost Lights, Hal experiences his own losses–he learns of one instance of his wife’s infidelity, and continues to struggle with their daughter’s paralysis. He does so not by building a new simulacrum of the world but, instead, by diving headlong into a “real” version of it. The book’s most glorious moments occur while he is snorkeling in Central America, or barely surviving a rainforest hike to find “T.” (T’s the reason the book moves—Susan’s employer and their daughter’s erstwhile lover, he disappears in Central America and Hal flies down to recover him.)
Hal discovers the glorious natural world right before saying goodbye to it. He reconciles with his family, if only in his head.
Hal’s embrace of the world is what I remember most about the novel. This sort of thing could be (already is) weary cliche: salaryman sleepwalks through life until discovering sensuous nature in a land down south, of darker-skinned people ready to serve him both literally and figuratively. He journeys South to find himself where life is warmer, easier, and richer.
But in Millet’s hands, this colonialist story screws around into a portrayal of global tourism, military recklessness, and loneliness. And it’s devastating in its pragmatism. Here is tourism, there is the American military spreading untruths, there is some poverty. And over there, diplomats getting drunk in a pool.
Millet is busy capturing the zeitgeist from some bower in the Southwest desert, and we haven’t even noticed.
Which is her exact point: the world’s lost species are on display in a private mansion in Pasadena. A man dies senselessly on the street in Belize.
What do we do with all that we lost?