by Lydia Millet
Hardcover (5 Nov 2012), 256 pages.
(Due out in paperback Nov 2013)
Publisher: W.W. Norton & Company
Lydia Millet is "one of the most acclaimed novelists of her generation" (Scott Timberg, Los Angeles Times). This stunning novel introduces Susan Lindley, a woman adrift after her husband's death. Suddenly gifted her great uncle's Pasadena mansion, Susan decides to restore his extensive collection of preserved animals, tending to "the fur and feathers, the beaks, the bones and shimmering tails." Meanwhile, a menagerie of uniquely damaged humans - including a cheating husband and a chorus of eccentric elderly women - joins her in residence.
Millet's "flawlessly beautiful" (Salon) prose creates a setting both humorous and wondrous as Susan defends her inheritance from freeloading relatives and explores the mansion's many mysterious spaces. Funny and heartbreaking, Magnificence is the story of a woman emerging from the sudden dissolution of her family. Millet's trademark themes - evolution and extinction, children and parenthood, loss and wonder - produce a rapturous final act to the critically acclaimed cycle of novels that began with How the Dead Dream.
It was a stricken love, but still love. It was the kind of love that gazed up at you from the bare white flood of your headlightsa wide-eyed love with the meekness of grass-eaters. Soft fur, pink tongue, and if you got too close a whiff of mulch on the breath. This was the love she cherished for her husband.
The love had other moments. Of course it did. But its everyday form was vegetarian.
She suspected it was the love of most wives for their husbands, after some time had passed. Not for the newlywedsthat was the nature of the conditionbut for the seasoned, the ones who had seniority. When she thought of conjugal love she saw a field of husbands stretched out in front of hera broad, wide field. Possibly a rice paddy. They were bent over, hoeing. Did you hoe rice? Well, whatever. The way she saw them, the husbands had a Chinese thing going on. They toiled like billions of peasants.
Technically, historically, and at this very moment in most of the world it was the wives who toiled. The wives toiled for their livelihoods, for the husbands and the little children. Sure; those were the facts. It was the wives, historically and factuallyin that limited historical, factual sensethat were the beasts of burden. Even in the richer places, it was the women who shortened their life expectancy by marrying, whereas the husbands lived longer than their freewheeling bachelor counterparts.
Still, there was something about the essence of husbands that made them seem like sturdy toilers. Husband, housebound. It might be the wives who were bound to the houses, materially speaking, but the husbands were bound to them. This was because of the narrow focus of most men, how they tended to have few intimates, in emotional terms. They left the social bonding to the wives, so they were bound to them.
And she was ready to tell him all the details, if that was what he wanted. She was prepared to come clean. But a toiler could so easily be hurt. A toiler was chronically exhausted from his long days of labor. What labor, you might ask? The labor of being a man, of course. It was hard to be a man. The men were all insane, basically, due to testosterone. You could see it in them, roiling under the surface. The few exceptions proved the rule, and the smart men were big enough to admit it. For instance, steroids made you more of a man, chemically, and alsonot a -coincidencemade you insane. She'd read that autism was thought by scientists to be an exaggerated form of maleness. So there was that. The latent madness and retardation of men was compounded by the fact that most of them didn't get to kill their own prey anymore, stalk living things and slay them in a savage bloodletting.
The men, even when they didn't know it, were frustrated by this. They were unfit to live in civilized society.
Of course, women were also subject to hormonal madnessfamously so. The estrogen or whatever, so-called premenstrual syndrome: the chemicals that, in excess, made them into caricatures of women. Hysteria, for instance, as Freud had called it. Neurosis. That time of the month. Of course Freud had been largely discredited. He had been a philosopher more than a scientist and Americans did not trust philosophers. Far from it. Also he did cocaine.
Still: no question, the fairer sex was more changeable than the unfair one. In practice this meant that the women's madness sometimes receded. But with the men it was constant. When it came to insanity, women were indecisive while men never let up. Oddly the chronic insanity of men was often referred to as stability; the men, being permanent sociopaths, got credit for consistency. Whereas the women, being mere part-time neu-rotics, were typecast as flighty. Essentially, the female bouts of sanity were used as weapons against them. Sociopaths v. neurotics. It was a nontrivial distinction since many men took the thing a bit too far, frankly, becoming serial killers, wife beaters, dirty cops, or boy soldiers in roving gangs; war criminals, tyrants, and demagogues.
Reprinted from Magnificence by Lydia Millet. Copyright © 2012 by Lydia Millet. With the permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company. All rights reserved.
What are a writer's moral responsibilities? Aside from telling a story, does a novel have to Say Something? Something about the Larger Stuff? This is a question I've heard asked, and asked myself, for years, and I still don't know the answer, but I do know that in terms of my own reading tastes, I tend to stay away from the Big Stuff, not only because I get tired of hearing what trouble we're in, but also because I know that in fiction - good fiction, anyway - everything can be large. Lydia Millet writes about big stuff, but it never feels like it. Her style and her sensibility caustic but never cynical, incisive but never cold ensures that above all else in Millet's world, story reigns supreme.
Magnificence - the final installment of a trilogy that began with How The Dead Dream and continued with Ghost Lights - holds true to Millet's reverence for story. It is, like much of her work, aware of the issues close to the author's heart - environmental degradation, extinction of languages and cultures, the decline of biodiversity - but anyone who'd call it, or any of her novels, "activist" is missing exactly what makes them anathema to that kind of writing: Millet's fierce loyalty to character. Magnificence is painfully, wincingly, hilariously human. (I should note here that Magnificence stands solidly alone, if you haven't read its precursors.)
Susan Lindley, middle-aged mother and secretary, is recently widowed. In a misguided attempt to prove something to himself - about manhood - her husband, Hal, took off for Belize after walking in on Susan committing adultery with a co-worker. When he comes home in a coffin, the victim of a bizarre and random crime, Susan feels she has no choice but to label herself a murderer. After all, if it weren't for her affair, Hal wouldn't have taken off.
And more important, people need labels. For Susan, guilt and blame aren't nearly as intolerable as ambiguity. "Murderer," at least, leaves no room for that. "She thought: the murder squatted. She thought along these lines daily. The murderer poured a cup of coffee. The murderer went to sleep. The murderer disassociated."
A distant uncle dies, leaving Susan a sprawling, decrepit estate on 20 acres in Pasadena, complete with a veritable natural history museum of taxidermy. She takes refuge in, indeed sets about with monk-like tenacity and reverence, to sort and organize its contents. And in sorting the rooms - Bears of The World, Horned Beasts, The Himalayas she's able to do the more important sorting of herself: Mother, Slut, Murderer. Magnificence is in large part about labels, systems, the ways in which we organize and categorize our lives in order to make sense of them.
Susan, and the novel, ask: are we the curators of our lives, or merely the caretakers? Inventors, or simply observers? Does anything we do really matter in the end? And what to make of all the systems we take for granted: living vs. dead, rich vs. poor, man vs. woman? As Susan discovers, beneath all the systems we create to understand our lives, there's a greater show, and it's been going on the whole time.
Here's where Millet works her best magic. Near the end of the novel, Susan discovers something different entirely, housed beneath the house she's been working to organize for all these months. It's as if the gods of Susan's life are saying to her, "That was fun, right? Now look at this." And as this happens to the characters of the novel, it also happens to the reader. Millet's prose achieves the same sudden shift and drop. Her sentences whittle, devolve, and finally distill. "Suddenly in her mind she was an old woman in a rambling house full of pelts. Nothing could be less appealing. And yet Ramon did not notice this sour flash of identity. He showed no outward sign. He did what he did. He was here."
There were several times when I had what I'll call a Lydia Millet moment. It sounds like this: "What's this? Ohhh. Oh wait OH."
It's very humbling, as someone who writes fiction, to read fiction this good, but I suspect this trick Millet pulls would humble any sensitive reader. Her own characters, too. When Susan discovers what's below the surface, she's awed by the simple reality of it; it's thereness."You didn't know what was happening out of view; you never did. You lived your life in a small part of the world, with only the faintest inkling of what was everywhere else."
And when the reader, like Susan, gets a glimpse of the other, the deeper, the real show, it's...magnificent.
Reviewed by Morgan Macgregor
Los Angeles Times
Lydia Millet's Magnificence is a novel of ideas. I mean that as a high compliment, for the ideas Millet invokes are the only ones that matter: life, death, love, longing, extinction, the ongoing existential quandary of what we are doing here.
Cleveland Plain Dealer
Exquisite and wholly original.
San Francisco Chronicle
[U]unnervingly talented Lydia Millet completes a trilogy... each stands independently; you can read just one of them if you please...There is something of Paula Fox in the way Millet provokes deep thinking without being overbearing. But I hate to compare Millet to anyone; she's truly an original.
The Daily Beast
Millet is simply an incredible writer. Her prose displays the exceedingly rare combination of philosophical introspection with poetic grace and flourish.
The deeply honest, beautiful meditations on love, grief and guilt give way to a curlicued comic-romantic mystery complete with a secret basement and assorted eccentrics.
Starred Review. A dazzling prose stylist, Millet elevates her story beyond that tired tale of a grieving widow struggling to move on, instead exploring grief and love as though they were animals to be stuffed, burrowing in deep and scooping out the innermost layers.
Starred Review. Millet is extraordinarily agile and powerful here, moving from light to shadow like a stalking lioness as Susan's strange stewardship casts light on extinction and preservation, how we care for others and seek or hide truth, and crimes both intimate and planetary.
Starred review. [A] refreshingly buoyant and unsentimental tale… Millet’s spare but powerful prose… calls to mind the work of J.M. Coetzee.
Even if the book might not quite be about them, Magnificence, like much of Millet's fiction, features animals prominently. When asked about her use of animals in her novels, Millet said, in an interview with Bookforum:
"We lose the subject of animals when we move out of childhood. In childhood animals are all around us, and then we throw them out. In childhood they're everywhere, the stuff of our stories and our art and our songs, of our clothes and blankets, of toys and games. Then in adulthood they're distant symbols or objects. They're rudely ejected from our domain. They're frivolous or infantile, suddenly. They're what we eat or maybe pets. Sometimes they're what we kill. But this makes no sense. This impoverishes our imaginations. When we turn away from animals as though they're only childish things, we make our world colder and more narrow. We rob ourselves of beauty and understanding. We rob ourselves of the capacity for empathy. My books are about empathy more than anything else, the idea that you don't have to be something to love it. The idea that we can love otherness, that we need to love otherness to know ourselves."
Indeed, when animals feature in contemporary fiction, they're often merely symbols (Jonathan Franzen's Freedom), issues (J. M. Coetzee's The Lives of Animals), or monsters/magical creatures (choose any recent vampire/werewolf iteration).
Of course, animals have a rich tradition in children's literature (The Wind in the Willows, Watership Down, Winnie the Pooh), but if you seek them out, there are a handful of contemporary writers who have created memorable animal characters in books for adults.
Kelly Link and Karen Russell write poignant short stories from animal perspectives, Garth Stein's The Art of Racing in the Rain is narrated by the family dog, and Benjamin Hale's The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore is nothing short of epic in its life story of a chimpanzee. One of last year's most buzzed-about debuts, Téa Obreht's The Tiger's Wife, used the tiger, both as symbol and as character, to create a truly arresting narrative about generations of a Balkan family.
Perhaps, sometimes, in searching for new ways to illuminate the human condition, writers realize that a character that's alive, yet other, is just what's called for.