Book Reviewlets: How the Dead Dream

When I was in college, a young punk complained, about One Hundred Years of Solitude, “Why do we have to talk about politics? It’s ruining the aesthetics of the novel!”

And my professor–still perhaps my favorite professor of all–responded, “How come no one ever complains that the aesthetics are ruining a good political novel?”

You put your politics in my novel, Lydia Millet.

I know that the apocalypse is happening at every minute all the time. But is that any reason to ruin a perfectly lovely reverse roman-a-clef?

I already wrote about Millet’s quiet apocalypse. How the Dead Dream is the first of her trilogy about the sixth extinction.

T is an embodiment of soulless capitalism. Until he’s not. Love and death humanize him and send him spiralling into a self-destructive obsession with radical empathy–radical because he empathizes with animals, a task that without anthropomorphism humans find nearly impossible.

I liked this book the least of the three. I’ll just say that straightaway. It took me several days to get through the first few pages, about how young T obsessively admired the presidents on US paper currency.

Too easy a metaphor for such a sophisticated writer. Too boring a character. Too dull a read for an almost experimental novel about the dissolution of a young real estate mogul in LA, the dissolving edge of the country.

However, this bland characterization pointed me to Millet’s intention: to make us feel the weight of our actions on earth. Our wanton destruction of up to 76% of the world’s species–either directly, like we did to the passenger pigeon, or indirectly, by reckless, almost gleeful pollution.

That is, the book made me dwell on the risks and rewards of letting politics ruin a perfectly nice aesthetic novel.

Of course, any novel that isn’t overtly political is still political. That’s not a tautological fallacy. That’s literary training.

But think: how can we start to care about the sixth extinction? The scientific fact that, due to humans changing our environment the way that a toddler “changes” anything rip-apart-able in her path, we are losing thousands of species a year? Ahead of when these species might otherwise be lost?

We could try Al Gore. We could try being Elizabeth Kolbert on The Daily Show. We could all move to the Arctic, or Fiji, and live it for ourselves.

But the truth is that for most of us, climate change is too abstract to matter. And while we may love our pets, most of us are unlikely to get all worked up about the permanent loss of some toad, smaller than a pinkie finger and even smellier.

So Millet has her work cut out for her. How can we live and feel the dramatic, rapid loss of most other living beings in our world?

And I didn’t even notice this, what one might ungenerously call an “agenda,” till I’d finished the novel.

So stop and think a minute: what novels have you read, ever, that embed ecological disaster in both background and foreground? So deeply into the novel that the characters are inseparable from the animals that they grow to relate to?

Edward Abbey? Um. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello does it in lecture form. What else?

Millet, meanwhile, uses the novel’s tools: characterization, lyricism, tension, to depict T’s full dissolution into a state of radical empathy with animals. And T needed to start out with almost no inner life, almost none of what we conventionally think of as a personality. He has very little to give up to dissolve into animality.

Because to empathize with animals, we have to lose our humanity. But then we have to get it back enough—throw on our good ol’ human whiz-bangness—to keep them from dying out. To stop ourselves from driving them extinct.

So here’s another literary truism: All novels about the “Other”—robots, aliens, animals—are really about being human. In Millet’s work, though, the other obliterates the human.

The human and the animal cannot coincide.

And in Millet’s work, that’s just fine.

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