Ghost Lights

  • Lydia Millet
  • W.W. Norton
  • 257 pp.

In the second book of a trilogy, a man wanders the Belize jungle in search of a missing acquaintance, only to confront his own psyche.

Reviewed by Amanda Holmes Duffy

Lydia Millet’s sixth novel, How the Dead Dream (2008), concerned real-estate developer T., who loses his bearings when his car hits a coyote and he watches its painful death.  After a series of other difficult losses, T. finds solace by breaking into zoos in the middle of the night. He ends up traveling to Belize and getting lost in the jungle. Millet’s new novel, Ghost Lights, the second of a trilogy, takes up the story here, this time back in Los Angeles, from the point of view of Hal, an IRS official.

Hal feels like “a surplus human, a widget among men.” When he suspects his wife, Susan, is having an affair with a coworker, he makes the impulsive offer to fly to Belize in search of T., Susan’s missing boss. Hal’s daughter Casey, a paraplegic, appears in How the Dead Dream as T.’s friend and one-time lover. His inability to protect this daughter from harm is Hal’s driving force. With no idea how to find T., or even any real intention of doing so, Hal sees the trip as a chance to please his daughter and to get away from his life.

Millet’s strongest themes in Ghost Lights once again center on loss, wilderness, isolation and self-discovery. Hal is quite a different character from T., mostly preoccupied with his anonymity and his ineptitude as a father. But he can also be scathingly critical of others. Millet gets right under Hal’s skin, as he muses on the serious and the trivial — the uniformity of people and of trees, the similarities between shells and hair, the various effects of alcohol and the differences between himself and a family of German tourists he encounters in the hotel. You sense that Millet wrote these passages swiftly and exuberantly, and they work really well.

Only occasionally the absurdist attitude turns flippant. Millet gets a bit carried away with certain words and turns of phrase (“cornboys,” for instance, or “Jesus T”). But the contrasts between Hal, “a tired assemblage of imperfect elements,” and the German couple who “radiated something akin to joy” is laugh-out-loud funny. You feel for Hal as he hacks his way through the jungle, tagging along behind Hans, who has “called in a small favor” and arranged for a NATO task force expedition to locate T.

But just as you think you’re only along for the ride, Millet pulls out an observation that brings you up short: “He picked at the flaws of his coworkers because he could never get at his own, he knew they were there but could not easily identify them — save for one, which opened before him like a hole in the very fabric of space, bristling with static. Bad father, father who let them hurt his baby.”

Millet explores her continuing fascination with the struggles of a man left alone and the private sanctity of the mind. She hypothesizes that there are two kinds of people in the world: those who face inward and those who look out. Some, like T., start out as inward-looking and end up looking outward. Hal, on the other hand, starts off looking outward and by the end of the book has taken a thorough inventory of his damaged psyche.

Early in How the Dead Dream, T.’s father comes out of the closet and explains to his son, “I was a ghost.  I wasn’t really there. It was all, I don’t know, some other guy’s life I stepped into by mistake.” One senses that Hal might echo this sentiment, for his own very different reasons. But many of Hal’s moments of self-realization depend on a back story, which doesn’t appear in this or the earlier book. Ghost Lights is bold and intelligent. It has a lot of heart and all of Millet’s trademark quirkiness. Her avid readers will devour it — and be hungry for more — which is not necessarily a bad thing for book two of a trilogy.

But for other readers this might be unsatisfying. Something is missing, particularly in the characterizations of Susan, Casey and T. Even after reading both novels, I still don’t quite get why Casey and Susan are so invested in T. I wonder if Millet will take this up in book No. 3? I’m looking forward to finding out.

Amanda Holmes Duffy, who teaches writing at Northern Virginia Community College, has edited art listings for “Goings On” in The New Yorker and published stories, under Amanda Holmes, in Ploughshares, Rattapallax, Moxie, Sunday Express and on the Ether Books app for download to iPhone. “Russian Music Lessons,” a nonfiction piece, is in the latest issue of The Northern Virginia Review.

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