Lydia Millet


"How the Dead Dream"

(Reviewed by Poornima Apte FEB 23, 2008)

T. has always had an extreme fondness for money. Obsessively he collects and hoards it—through his paper routes, by offering “protection money” to classmates at high school or by inventing fake charitable causes and soliciting neighbors for cash. “He always dedicated a percentage of the take to the cause at hand: so his efforts, if not entirely selfless, yielded what he liked to call a net positive effect,” writes author Lydia Millet in her new novel, How The Dead Dream.

As he grows older, T. worships all institutions that speak money and even carefully avoids human weaknesses. T. slowly builds an extensive circuit of contacts while at college that will serve him well later in life. “Currency infused all things, from the small to the monolithic,” T. observes, “It was only money that could set a person free.” A secret day trader even during college, T. moves on to real estate after college and makes considerable sums of money in the trade.

Millet does a wonderful job of portraying T. not simply as a villainous consumer but as someone who is equally a product of the time and circumstances around him. In one of many sharply observed passages in the novel, Millet accurately describes the many retirees who gobble up T.'s offerings.

“Hundreds of units were already presold. The place would not disappoint; it would be almost heaven for the buyers, whose profiles were already known to him. Aging golfers whose children lived far away and avoided contact, whose fixed pensions were supplemented by a moderate annual influx of dividend and interest income from conservatively managed accounts, whose idea of leisure involved little more than a sunny clime, eighteen holes minimum and a view of pastel-colored fake adobe; these golfers and their wives, most of whom would outlive them, watching the sunset as they sat in the dry air, gentle, quiet, sipping their gin-and-tonics, smelling the barbeque from a few doors down and watching the colors in the western sky deepen.”

As the novel moves on, T. discovers his father has walked out on his mother and become a gay bartender in Florida. His devastated mother runs to T. and promptly suffers a stroke. His singular obsession with money is interrupted when T. hits a coyote on a highway. The incident shakes him significantly. “She was dying in the smells of asphalt, exhaust, and other smells he could not know himself,” T. recollects.

But it's only when girlfriend Beth also dies suddenly that T. really comes apart. The tenuous nature of life really hits home this time. “If a being could be so singular to another, there was no doubt that there was singularity elsewhere, that the irreplaceable nature of being was not limited to his own small circle,” T. realizes. Slowly he develops a new compulsion: he has to be among animals. Almost daily, he visits zoos in the night and shares space with them.

His other routines carry on, if in a slightly displaced fashion. In one particularly brilliant part of the book, T. strikes up a wonderful friendship with a young paraplegic, Casey, the daughter of his office secretary. Millet beautifully describes the hesitant and awkward relationship that develops between the two. Despite the fact that T. leads a life that includes interaction with adults and peers, these parts of the novel seem to diverge quite a bit from the book's mission. The tone in these sections (the moments when T. confronts his father about deserting his mother or the deeply touching relationship T. shares both with his mother and friend Casey) don't square with the more somber one that Millet develops when she is talking about the animals. In that sense, the descriptions of the rest of T.'s life don't work to paint him as a complete whole. Instead they become distractions to the central plot of the novel.

The book's direct message—about how humans are accelerating the extinction of species around the world—is one that most people who pick up How The Dead Dream will already be keenly aware of.  One worries that Millet's brave if somewhat preachy effort will probably not reach its intended audience.  Millet's real success lies in showing  how humans are truly alone despite our best efforts to the contrary. In the terrifying yet strangely liberating ending, T. finally becomes one with nature. Like the zoo animals he once loved to visit, he arrives at “the forefront of aloneness like a pioneer.” How The Dead Dream shows how shaky our tomorrows can be if we keep up our collective laser-like focus on consumption. Millet provides us a peek: The future looks to be lonely and uncertain. We are nowhere near ready for it.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 9 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from How the Dead Dream at author's website



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About the Author:

Lydia MilletLydia Millet was born in Boston in 1968. She moved to Toronto, Canada with her Egyptologist father and teacher/librarian mother two years later. She holds a BA from University of North Carolina and a Master's Degree in Environmental Policy at Duke University. She moved to New York in 1996, where she worked as a fundraiser for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

In 1999 she went freelance and moved to Tucson, where she now lives and writes full-time on an isolated spread in the desert.

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