A fitting finale to her trilogy, Lydia Millet's brilliantly crafted new novel introduces us to Susan, a widow and mother who feels as if she is going nowhere fast.
Book review: Magnificence is a worthy finale
In Lydia Millet's 2008 novel How the Dead Dream, we met T, a young hotshot property developer who, after hitting a coyote while driving on the motorway, began dedicating himself to preserving vanishing species.
T reappears in a 2011 follow-up, Ghost Lights - only to disappear in a jungle while on one of his eco expeditions. Millet switches protagonists for this novel, and we follow Hal, a man who is so bemused by his wife's fascination with T, her employer, that he decides to head to Central America in search of him.
Now, with Magnificence, Millet concludes her acclaimed trilogy. Once again, she rotates her leads and this time we are in Hal's wife's company. Susan's tale is just as wild and rambunctious as those first two, but Millet cuts deeper and more trenchantly here, revealing her motley cast's many idiosyncrasies with scalpel-like acuity before exposing what makes her flawed but feisty heroine tick.
The book opens with Susan and her paralysed daughter, Casey, driving through Los Angeles to pick up Hal and T at the airport. Only T shows up, however, and explains that Hal was fatally stabbed in Belize. Susan instantly feels responsible. If Hal hadn't caught her in flagrante delicto with Robert, a fantasy baseball player, he may not have embarked on his foolhardy rescue mission.
Susan's grief is thus tempered with guilt. She is not only a woman of loose morals, but a murderer, too. The latter sobriquet she routinely beats herself up with, the former is almost worn as a badge of pride: "monogamy was authoritarian, a form of property law." Before Hal's death her marriage was on its last legs, only she had never got around to ending it: "The break-up was like an item on a grocery list, something to cross out."
And yet with Hal gone, Susan still feels rudderless. She is going nowhere fast in her job. Robert, "a person almost completely devoid of substance", is a stopgap conquest. Casey, needing to mourn, finds T a more sympathetic shoulder to cry on and grows distant from her mother - the gap expanding even more when the pair elope to get married in secret.
Susan is hauled from her rut when she learns she has inherited a house in Pasadena from a great-uncle. By rights, we should groan at the implausibility - Susan was in the process of looking for a new home; the great-uncle is a relative she barely remembers - but then we recall we are in a novel by Lydia Millet. We accept the many heaped contingencies in Magnificence, just as we accepted that Hal would risk life and limb to locate a man he barely knew in Ghost Lights.
Part of Millet's skill, and indeed charm, as a writer, is her knack of bulletproofing her absurdities. Characters follow irrational urges, experience unbelievable coincidences and are afforded immensely lucky breaks, but Millet's smooth, witty and at times intoxicatingly beautiful prose gulls us, to the extent that we ignore any plot infelicities and simply succumb to her lyricism, shrewd observations and abundant inventiveness.
That inventiveness is a unique, almost Dickensian form of creativity from which Millet's novels thrive. The house Susan inherits is not the decaying bungalow she expects, but a mansion brimming with taxidermy. Unable to move for stuffed animals, Susan acquires a purpose and direction and sets about restoring and regrouping the neglected exhibits. The eight bedrooms have themes: "The Rainforest" comprises stuffed snakes, parrots and a sloth; "The Arctic" has caribou and an Arctic fox and iceberg murals on the wall. Susan the slut chooses to sleep in room called "Horned Beasts". In How the Dead Dream T's new-found love of endangered animals led to him breaking into zoos to be nearer to them. Here, Susan cohabits with many more, only they happen to be dead, stuffed and mounted.
In a lesser writer's hands, this house would be no more than a wacky, decorative touch. But Millet uses it not only as a means to jolt Susan out of her lethargy but as a springboard to various thoughts on hunting, climate change and the erosion of natural resources.
What could have been wearying didactic soapbox diatribes are relayed as cool, matter-of-fact meditations. Susan moves on to ruminate on that steady erosion in human terms, ageing. "'We're brittle and fading,' she thought. Fading like moths, gray-blond mothers."
T and Casey elope once again, this time to do more jungle work in Borneo, and Susan is entrusted with looking after Angela, T's mother, who was a doting parent in the earlier books but is now simply in her dotage. Casey's departure prompts Susan to ponder how "soon the young would be absent, lifted into the momentum of their speedy existences in which the past was only a minor point of information - the parents who had raised and loved them, even adored them with all their hearts, only the vaguest imprint."
Eventually, and perhaps inevitably, we are privy to deeper musing on extinction - death - which began earlier when Susan viewed Hal in his coffin and realised that "this was the last time they would share a space, the last time their skins would be close. After this they would always be separate, on and on past the end of time, until the sun burnt out and everything dissolved." Susan comes to agree that death is "a random event" but reconsiders when remembering the death of T's beautiful, model-like ex: "Her heart had stopped with no warning and she was gone, as though to prove the unfeasibility of her goodness."
It is refreshing to read writing on this theme that is thought-provoking rather than mawkish, and that is bound cohesively to the book as a whole. But Millet also has fun with these themes, particularly when, after Susan has contemplated a declining birth-rate and "plagues of the elderly", Angela and her cronies move in with her. Susan shuttles from curator to caregiver, and her museum is transformed into a living, thronging menagerie. The novel is rich with such alterations and upheavals, Susan's tricky attempts at readjustment, not least with regards her love life.
There are fleeting attempts at tension in the novel - Susan's two-faced cousins who want to contest the will and claim the house; her discovery of a secret basement whose contents may unlock the mystery of the legacy - but otherwise Magnificence is about the aftermath of a crisis and the new ways in which the dust settles. Or, more fittingly, the ways particles regroup, for Millet peppers Susan's thoughts with deft references to subatomic matter. "Molecules, molecules and atoms, sweet tiny points of being." Trying to understand death, Susan decides, is the same as "spinning a tale out of physics, out of atoms." Hal has gone - "gone into other molecules. The binding is released, the molecules have not held. The molecules let him go."
Best of all, when Susan surveys her new home, she feels that "the universe showed off its symbolic perfection; the atoms bragged". We delight in hearing that a woman has "lipstick the colour of traffic cones" or that a man whose sunglasses and wraparound visor make it look as if "the upper half of his face was missing in action" but Millet truly impresses when conveying "the mess of life" with "the stew and whirl of microorganisms".
People die in Millet's fictive worlds, and Susan suffers in this one, but no one broods for too long: splinter groups form from the wreckage and left-behind mementos make for intriguing flotsam. Bittersweet and brilliant, Magnificence is the worthy finale to a cycle of novels that shines an original light on the complexities of love and loss.
Malcolm Forbes is a freelance essayist andreviewer.