Book Review: How the Dead Dream by Lydia Millet

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3.5/5 Stars.

“Mastery was only a moment in the mind — of other men, of yourself. Like the stock market, a consensus of opinion, a pure abstraction; nothing to the tsunamis, the boiling sun, the plate tectonics. The social compact was abstraction — roads, buildings, and a temporary agreement about behavior. That was it. The matter beneath it all was what lasted, and meanwhile, always, the world of people was on the edge of dissolution.”

I’m really struggling with how to rate this one. Lydia Millet is undeniably brilliant, and reading a novel like this makes me feel like I’m being dropped into the mind of someone smarter and more insightful than I could ever hope to be. Personally, I gravitate toward that kind of challenge. It’s a privilege, really, to bear witness to such an incredible mind.

But if I’m being honest, I didn’t love this book. I loved her themes. I loved the second half of the story. But I didn’t love all of it. For me, the moments of brilliance — and there are plenty of them — make it all worth it, but I have to acknowledge my ambivalence throughout.

How the Dead Dream follows follows T., a wealthy young real estate investor, throughout his isolated life, from childhood through his 20s. For the most part he’s a callous, calculating, unlikable person — until the night that he hits a coyote with his car and it changes his life. Transformed by the experience, which allows him to acknowledge his deep existential loneliness for the first time,  T. finally allows himself to open up to others, but then tragedy strikes just as he starts to fall in love.

It’s how T. deals with his grief that’s so fascinating. Feeling a deep connection to both nature and the inevitability of death, T. begins breaking into zoos to spend his time among the endangered animals. There, he observes them and feels a sense of oneness with them, connecting to their aloneness, their resolute nature, their indifference to the humans who surround them, and their proximity to the end of the world.

In telling T.’s story, Millet creates a deep, powerful meditation on mankind’s relationship with animals and undeniable vulnerability when confronted by nature. Ambivalence aside, I’m still looking forward to reading more of Millet’s work.

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Book Review: Sweet Lamb of Heaven by Lydia Millet

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4.5/5 Stars.

“I thought how, in our normal, middle-class circumstance, we almost relish the idea of dark forces that lurk in the shadows. We watch movies, read books made glamorous by black and red pallets of horror, the hint of an otherworldly malice running like quicksilver through the marrow of our bones. We like to call the dark rumors demonic, like to have monsters to fear instead of time, aging, the falling away of companions.”

Holy. Shit. There is so much I have to say about this incredible book, but on the other hand I don’t want to reveal too much about it because it’s such an utter delight to go into it not knowing what to expect and try to piece it together and figure out what the hell is going on. It’s early, but I think this may end up being one of my favorite books of 2016.

I’ll tell you this much about the actual plot: Anna begins having auditory hallucinations whenever she is in the presence of her infant daughter, Lena. Several years later, she decides to leave her dangerous, sociopathic husband, and she and Lena flee to a motel in Maine inhabited by a curious set of characters.

This book has a fairly low rating on Goodreads and I can’t fathom why. Perhaps readers were expecting a more conventional thriller. This book is anything but conventional. The best way I can describe it is enthralling. If you could only see the number of pages I dog-eared because the content was so fascinating.

Think Chuck Palahniuk if he were a better writer. This is a story that exists in a somewhat surreal world with a distinctly sinister bent to it. Is Anna crazy and paranoid? Are the voices she’s hearing the byproduct of psychosis, or could they be something outside the realm of current human understanding: a collective unconscious that exists among all living things, where the ego is abandoned in the face of shared sentience?

Unfortunately, Anna’s “gift” makes her susceptible to her husband’s malicious manipulations in such a way that it threatens to destroy her sense of self and everything she is.

This is psychological and existential horror at its absolute best: No monsters, no ghosts, no murderers. In the end, the self is all we have — is there anything more terrifying than the prospect of losing that?