- Lydia Millet
- W.W. Norton and Company.
- 256 pp.
- Reviewed by Amanda Holmes Duffy
- November 30, 2012
In this concluding work of a trilogy, the author presents a biting commentary on extinction and our stewardship of the natural world.
Reviewed by Amanda Holmes Duffy
Magnificence, the conclusion of a trilogy that began with How the Dead Dream and Ghost Lights, is Lydia Millet’s most biting commentary so far on extinction and our stewardship of the natural world. In Ghost Lights, Hal travels to Belize to locate his wife Susan’s missing boss, T. At the end, he conducts an internal inventory of his life, which suggests a new awakening. (If you haven’t yet read Ghost Lights, be advised that this review contains a spoiler.)
This novel opens as Hal’s wife, Susan, drives to the airport to pick up Hal and T. Writing in Susan’s voice, Millet is at her satirical best, tossing out one-liners in a kind of stand-up routine that is laugh-out-loud funny.
But when she meets T at the arrival gate, the mood turns. T informs Susan that Hal has died. In Ghost Lights, Hal departed for Belize after discovering Susan’s infidelity. Now Susan blames herself for his death. She is a slut and a killer. “She was missing something and she always would be. That was all she had now: the freedom of nothing.”
Loss, extinction and annihilation are Millet’s trademark subjects, and in Magnificence she has a lot more to say about them. When Susan views Hal’s body, she is shocked to see him looking better in death than he did in life. But it’s too late for apologies. “The body would not listen. It was a corpse, not him — but then it was him, it was. Wasn’t it? The last him she would know — the trace of him, the path he left. The raw materials.”
This uncomfortable insight sets up the central question of Magnificence. Susan inherits an estate from an eccentric uncle, which eclipses her widowhood. The property includes extensive grounds and a mansion housing an enormous collection of taxidermy. It is a small museum.
Susan sleeps in a bedroom featuring the horned beasts of Africa; another room is themed as a rain forest, full of stuffed snakes and parrots; yet another is modeled on the arctic, with icebergs painted on the walls. Susan resolves to devote herself to restoring the collection — a resolution that becomes her quest. “Stretching before you was the land, as though you were beginning it; the rest of being floated ahead, a movie in a darkened hall. Its possibilities touched the planes of your face, not too close, not too far, a scene of earth and sky that asked for nothing and forced nothing on you.”
But Millet gets quite carried away as the pages flow on, and provocative though Susan’s restoration project is, the book would have benefited from ruthless editing. T’s readjustment to civilization is almost entirely absent, and although he is central to the trilogy, he remains elusive in Magnificence. Apart from this, it’s hard for the reader to know where to direct her attention or where the story is going. At one point T’s mother, who has early-onset Alzheimer’s, gets lost in the house during a party. The guests search for her through the bedrooms, the rainforest, the Himalayas, the Indian subcontinent and “then onto the barren wastes of Mongolia and The Soviet Union,” checking every room “save horned beasts” until they hear a tap running and discover her in the bathtub.
The house-warming party goes on forever, following various guests as they discover different rooms of the mansion. Everyone ends up drunk, and here the writing felt too clever by half. Millet misses no opportunity to send up the characters and their settings. Casey, for instance, is pictured “sitting impatiently in her chair beneath a woody canopy of fallow-deer antlers.”
Then, in a passage that condenses several months, Susan amasses an army of taxidermists, landscape designers and students to restore the collection. In between we get a thinly disguised polemic about extinction, centered on the disappearance of elephants for their ivory and rhinos for their powdered horn.
Dead things, Millet suggests, are often more beautiful than living ones, which makes us complacent. On living in beautiful houses, she observes: “Your life became the house and like the house the life could acquire a quality of completion.” Home for Susan becomes a resting place, a temple inviting routine. She no longer goes out or tries to make things happen. Her lifeless Eden is compared to other institutions — old churches, universities and museums — the “air of permanence and contentment, the happy captivity of precious things.”
But the flippant narrative voice, which Millet employs to offset the seriousness of her themes, occasionally feels like a trick. She falls back on it too often. Of T’s interest in marine mammal rescue, Casey says, “He’s on a bunch of lists now. Your basic Good Samaritan shit.” Of his interest in forest animals: “He loves those little fuckers.” Details about Angela’s caregiver and a strange diatribe about “Fresh Air’s” Terry Gross interviewing a rap musician read like quirky filler that doesn’t serve the story.
In spite of its unevenness, however, Magnificence is Millet’s most ambitious novel of the three, which becomes clear in the final chapters. In a stunning conclusion, Susan’s moments of self-knowledge echo Hal’s last scene in Ghost Lights. Millet’s vision of an “earth and sky that asked for nothing and forced nothing on you” is chillingly turned on its head.