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Dealing with life in a dying world

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Valerie Miner
March 16, 2008

How the Dead Dream
By Lydia Millet
Counterpoint, 256 pp., $24

Lydia Millet's sixth novel, "How the Dead Dream," is a quirky, discursive portrait of one man's evolving consciousness about success, love, kinship, and planetary responsibility. In this provocative odyssey, as in her previous novels, Millet mingles the rational, absurd, and supernatural.

From an early age Thomas (T.) is attracted to money. His impulses are aesthetic and emotional as much as economic. "His first idol was Andrew Jackson. . . . Jackson's . . . finely etched countenance came to him in moments of anxiety and calmed his heart."

Young T. hoards a stash under his pillow and dreams of clever, dubious ploys to accrue more funds. He bilks parents and neighbors under the guise of collecting for United Way, YMCA, Boy Scouts. At school, T. establishes a blackmail ring, hiring bullies to threaten his friend so he can extort protection money from him.

We flash forward to college in a small North Carolina town where T. flourishes in his fraternity and secret stock-exchange investments. He is reserved but popular with women, who find him a dignified counterpoint to his comrades. After graduation in 1986, he zips into a successful land development career. By the age of 22, he has a Santa Monica office, two middle-aged assistants, and membership in an exclusive racquet club where he hopes to make lucrative business contacts.

Loner T. casts a gimlet eye on fellow humans. "What people valued and professed to value were quite different objects. . . . When they said they wanted passion, they meant the feeling of novelty; instead of what was beautiful, they wanted what was affirmed; instead of a challenge, an easy victory that others believed to be hard-won."

This very interior novel prizes philosophical speculation over dramatic narration. Millet is more drawn to posing ethical and environmental quandaries than to creating dynamic scenes or nuanced characters. Before publishing her first novel, "Omnivores," in 1996, she studied environmental policy and worked for the Natural Resources Defense Council. In this idea-driven novel, minimal action is understandable since the protagonist lives in his head.

T.'s consciousness irrevocably shifts one night when he hits a coyote on the highway. His sympathy, sorrow, and wonder over the animal's abrupt death eventually lead him to unexpected places.

Millet's humor ranges from dry irony to over-the-top satire to wistful amusement. As T.'s mother recovers from a stroke, she confesses: "I died and went to another place. . . . the International House of Pancakes." Ever after, she suffers from a phobia about IHOPs. Her fervent Catholic concern for T.'s immortal soul focuses on steering him away, not from hell, but from pancake houses.

When sudden tragedy strikes, T. recalls the coyote, and a kinship with endangered animals is palpably awakened. His first project is to provide an alternate habitat for kangaroo rats that his new subdivision is displacing. Although the scheme fails, he's drawn to other threatened creatures. The affinity is electric. "Animals were self-contained and people seemed to hold this against them - possibly because most of them had come to believe that animals should be like servants or children. . . . He was self-contained too: He had a private purpose, a trajectory, and no one had license to block it."

Avocation becomes obsession as he transmutes his grief over a human loss into alarm about dwindling biodiversity. He hires a Brazilian locksmith to help him break into zoos at night to be near the animals. "He had standards. He only broke into accredited zoos. In the others he knew he would see nothing but misery."

T. seems to monitor, rather than fully experience, his human relationships. His mother is lonely, growing frail. His rich investor aggressively presses eligible vapid women on him. He finds tentative friendship with a young disabled woman. He does enjoy time with his dog, the one reliable, rewarding figure in his life. But T.'s need for order is disrupted by messy human behavior. His new friend pulls away. His investor grows estranged. His mother doesn't recognize him. His dog is kidnapped.

Still, endangered animals offer passionate connection. He makes friends with three elephants and falls asleep in their cage. "One morning, he woke to the elephants pacing and felt he was pacing with them. . . . Their deep rage that was as heavy as they were, massive in its resignation - this lay over him in a swell, a contagion of misery."

In the novel's final journey, T. flies to the literal eye of the storm when he visits a Caribbean development being ravaged by a hurricane. After witnessing devastating damage, he embarks on a Conradian voyage into the jungle to find jaguar. And if he doesn't achieve what he'd hoped, he does discover a communion across species.

Valerie Miner's new novel is "After Eden." She teaches at Stanford University. Her website is valerieminer.com.

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