Thursday, April 28, 2011

"How the Dead Dream" (Lydia Millet Review/interview Part Two)

How the Dead Dream

How the Dead Dream, Lydia Millet's most recent novel, is described as being "the first book of a trilogy dealing with extinction."  It is a very accomplished book, full of a sense of pity and awe that at moments almost overwhelmed me.  Ms. Millet was kind enough to answer some questions for our blog, and I asked her about taking on a topic of such size and complexity:

The series isn’t only about extinction, but it circles the idea. The second and third books come out this fall and next — they’re called Ghost Lights and Magnificence — and they continue with the same people from How the Dead Dream, along the same chronology, but have different protagonists. In Ghost Lights, the one coming out soonest, the connection with extinction is fairly abstract; this is mainly a story about a devoted father who discovers his wife’s infidelity and takes off into the jungle to get away from her. In Magnificence the connection comes into clear focus again: that same wife, who was unfaithful, inherits an old mansion full of taxidermy mounts.

I also asked her about her background, and what it was that brought her to such an unusual theme:

I’ve been obsessed with animals always, and with extinction for at least the past twenty years since I became aware of the extinction crisis. Since roughly 1996 I’ve worked in endangered species advocacy, in one way or another, after doing a graduate degree in environmental policy and economics. So it was inevitable I would write about these matters. It took me a while to get there because the task is a hard one and delicate to negotiate.

How the Dead Dream is the story of T., a young man who grows up with an almost fetishistic attachment to money and becomes a successful real estate developer.  He is expert at the art of making himself useful to those around him, and yet he lives at some remove from all of them, not really connecting.  T. seems unaware of his isolation, however, until one night on the way to Las Vegas he runs over a coyote on the freeway.  He stops to see what he has hit, and unwittingly opens himself to an experience that will change his life.

He willed himself not look at her legs, to try and ignore what was back there bleeding ... He looked only at her face and her side to see if she was still breathing.  But despite the fact that he was not looking, as he sat beside her, he imagined the shock from the ruined legs coursing through her body, what must be the blind surge of pain as the end closed in ... She was dying in the smells of asphalt, exhaust, and gasoline, no doubt also the smell of her own blood, and him, and other smells he could not know himself.

The fullness, the terrible sympathy!

Had he felt this before, he wondered?  Maybe when he was a boy?  Animals died by the road and you saw them all the time, everyone did.  You saw them lying there, so obvious in their deadness, sad lumps of dirty meat; you saw their limp furry masses thrown up like flowers along the yellow stripes, the tumbly asphalt edges.  You saw the red insides all exposed.  You though: that is the difference between them and me.  My insides are firmly contained.

Reading that passage, I couldn't help but remember a similar point of realization in my own life.  A few years ago I started volunteering at a wildlife rehab center and one of the animals I worked with most often was the opossum.  I often had to handle and clean up after the older opossum, and I also learned to tube feed the tiny babies (opossum are marsupials, so they don't have the same kind of nursing instincts that other mammals have -- you can feed baby squirrels, for instance, with a syringe which they will eagerly suck on, but opossum have to be tube fed).  In our orientation, the trainer mentioned that mother opossum that are hit by cars, often have babies still alive in their pouches, and that it's important to check the pouches, because the babies can be save.  A few weeks later, I passed an opossum who had died in the middle of the road, and with the lesson still fresh in my mind I pulled over to the side, watched for traffic, and ran out to check the body.  It turned out to be a male, but getting so close to the dead opossum, a member of a species I had been coming to know and feel some affection for, suddenly made me think about all the animals we see dead in the city, which we so easily pass by -- each in its own sense an individual, with an individual life that matters to it.
T., in Millet's novel, has a similar experience:

And were I to lie on the side of the road dying, it would be nothing like that.  No one would drive around me:  the cars would stop, tens upon hundreds of them; there would be lines of stopped traffic for miles as they removed my body, flashing their red and blue lights of crisis and competence. 
Presently he realized that her flank had ceased to rise and fall ... Where was the ambulance?  No: he was all she had.  All her lights, her rescue workers.

It was just a coyote.  No one would fault him for leaving.

And yet he felt confused.

"Good girl," he whispered.

I asked Lydia Millet about her own relationship with animals.  Did she have many pets growing up?  What did she think were the most important lessons she'd learned from relationships with animals.  

Growing up, I had cats, birds, fish, guinea pigs, mice and one large rabbit. What I’ve chiefly learned from my pets: There’s a language barrier between us. My pug dog is indifferent to my remarks about the gold standard and medical marijuana. I’m willing to live with that, but what about when I talk to her about her food issues? Bad breath? There I wish we could communicate better. Frankly the thing worries me.

Indeed, this theme of otherness -- of the wall of non-communication that separates us from animals, is a theme that runs through Millet's work.  In How the Dead Dream and even more explicitly in the stories in Love in Infant Monkeys (her 2009 story collection which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize) there is always a certain opaqueness to the animals -- its hard even to call them characters -- but also a kind of realism which is rare in fiction.  It seems that in most fiction animals are either part of the setting, just there as backdrop like the family pet on a sit-com, or they are used metaphorically and allegorically (as for example in much magic realism, or The Life of Pi by Yann Martel).  I never get that impression from  Millet's animals.  Even when they are already dead, as the Pheasant shot by Madonna just before the beginning of the story "Sexing the Pheasant", they have a sense of integrity and independence -- that is, they are there in their own right, and whatever it is that humans are trying to make of them never quite encompasses them -- they are unknowable, but also not co-opted.  

About why animals have become so important in her fiction -- and what about our relationship to them most captures here imagination, Millet says:

Partly the unknowability of animals’ interior experience, partly a sense of the deep privilege of still living in a world with that unknown difference all around us, that abundance of being. I fear a future in which the world is so impoverished of wild creatures that all that remains is a truncated version of us — us and our toys and our machines, the things that we’ve made and nothing else. That hovers over me as a likely and terrible prospect.

That fear also reverberates in her work.  I asked her What she thinks about the possibility of introducing non-human points of view into fiction?  Can we get outside our own projections well enough to really try to imagine their worlds?  Is the problem or representing animals in fiction more difficult than the perennial issues of human writers representing different races, nationalities, genders?  

Far more difficult. There have been some noble literary tries at this, to write from the supposed POV of an animal, and the effort shows — Barbara Gowdy’s The White Bone, for instance, almost succeeded in crafting a viable elephant POV, it had some moments of inspiration and certainly there was insight there (Gowdy’s such a talented writer), but also in some particular aesthetic ways it cringingly failed, as has, so far, every such attempt. I think the trouble is twofold: One, we don’t know animal language and so we can’t in most cases even presume to elaborate the nature of their subjectivity. Two, exactly what is fascinating about nonhuman animals is their not-us-ness in its infinite variety. So you can make them into us, when you write about them — as in many children’s stories, a convention I love. Or you can try in literature to evoke them as narrators, but in most cases that second, loftier project will fail. It will fail precisely because it promises the impossible and so can only deliver the unbelievable. A writer may, in writing say a chipmunk narrator, create a thing that passes for being an imagined rendition of chipmunk, but the likelihood that such a creation will succeed in suspending disbelief, be subtle and complex, and also produce an enticing simulacrum of chipmunkness is highly remote. 

As a writer -- and as someone who works and lives closely with animals -- I don't want to believe that Millet is right about that.  I also suspect that this perception of "unknowability" is tied in a way that is not immediately obvious, to the fear which she expressed before, that fear of the loss of otherness and being trapped in a world entirely of our own making.  

Of course, it was partly because of my own preoccupation with these questions that I began "Books and Beasts" in the first place.  So I will be returning to them again in the very near future.

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