Lydia Millet. How the Dead Dream. Counterpoint. 2008.
Lydia Millet’s sixth novel, How the Dead Dream, asks us to consider what makes empathy possible: not only the growing empathy of T.—the novel’s central character and capitalist extraordinaire—for endangered animals and fragile humans, but also our own empathy for a protagonist who for most of the novel loves the accumulation of wealth above all else.
Our first encounter with T. comes during his childhood; we find him already hording money and manipulating and extorting family and classmates. By the time we meet T. as an adult, money has reached the status of a deity, the god in all things, as T. revels in Whitmanian catalogues that portray money as the “single answer” in “the lurch and flux, in all the variation and the same”:
There was the noble trace of money in the half-imagined bodies of dinosaurs, looming with arched necks in the shadowed halls of natural history museums, the back-lit shapes of toothy deep-sea fish brought up from dark fathoms below […] There was money in the grandeur of the ranks of the imperial armies as they might march across the deserts underneath the skies, in the great thick cables that ran beneath the surging Atlantic, the intricate and freezing satellites that whirred a thousand miles above the surface of the earth […]
Throughout the bulk of the novel, T. is the supreme capitalist, motivated by desire for future wealth rather than by the pleasures of the present. In college, while his fraternity brethren run amok, T. is the perpetual designated driver tying up the frayed ends that his companions leave in their wake, which encompass everything from drug-induced existential angst to date rape. In this environment, T. never indulges instead performing his clean-up duties not out of fraternal loyalty but out of cunning always planning for how his aid to others might benefit him. T. sees no need to justify his scheming claiming it has a “positive net effect” as long as it also benefits someone else. Although, it’s hard to believe that the girls whom he persuades not to press sexual assault charges really “remembered him not with resentment but with tender respect.”
Yet, T. is not a repulsive character; despite his machinations, he’s still thoroughly human, in part because of Millet’s honest descriptions of T.’s self-interest—after all, what could be more human? But our sympathy for T. also stems from his growing awareness of the bits of wilderness in his orderly world, particularly as they crop up in a cast of characters who are just as egregiously flawed as he: a father who picks up and begins a new life without a word to his wife or son, wealthy frat brothers who ineloquently and thoughtlessly long for the “good life” of manual labor, and investors so lonely that they mistake T.’s interest in them for earnest friendship despite his constant business pitches.
However, T.’s first moment of real connection, of “fullness, the terrible sympathy,” doesn’t occur until T. hits a coyote with his car. It is this revelatory encounter with the pained body of another creature with her dying sensations that finally creates a moment of confusion within his controlled, confident world:
Animals died by the road and you saw that all the time […] You saw the red insides all exposed. You thought: that is the difference between them and me. My insides are firmly contained.
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 traffic for miles as they removed my body, flashing their red and blue lights of crisis and competence […]
While T. grows more empathetic towards animals (considering what they might think, feel, or experience), his relationships with people remain distant. Though he recognizes parallels between his life and theirs, those parallel lines never converge, and he experiences something more akin to simultaneity than to connection. As T. begins to doubt the merits of a life devoted to capitalism and consumption, of a desire to “pave it over, make it a smooth and continuous surface, flat and gray on the world, speed and ease,” it’s not the various human losses in his life that provoke reevaluation, but rather the loss of animal life. Yet, even as kangaroo rats are made extinct so that he can build a subdivision, T. acknowledges his pang of disturbance “was not empathy. It was fear. It was the knowledge of the ants beneath them, the ants pouring away and taking with them the very foundations. Everything.” T.’s anxiety is not merely a sentimental sorrow for an extinct species or guilt over his role in extinguishing their lives, it is a sudden sense of self-preservation or fear of what might happen to humans when these foundations gone.
How the Dead Dream is at its best during its sparse, humorous snippets of dialogue in which characters voice aloud their bizarre thoughts, not in the unbelievably witty Juno-esque way, but rather in frequently foolish declarations that Millet skewers with wry, spare interjections. For instance, when T.’s mother, Angela, emerges from a coma, claiming that she had died and gone to another place, she declares, “I was surprised. I thought it would be heaven, T. But it was very, very bad […] It was the International House of Pancakes […] I thought it would be more expensive than that.” Millet follows this with a brief interlude in which Angela uses her experience on the “other side” to encourage T. to grand displays of good works: “When T. resisted her tithing demands she would finger-wag and remind him of the flicker of long tubes over his head, the blue-white light, and the laminated menus with close-up pictures of heavy foods.” Such interludes can’t be adequately described as digressions because the book is made up of moments like these—not merely witty asides, but a series of strange behaviors and mental paths that indicate the complex evolution of her characters, the tics that develop in response to their experiences that fade into the background until what initially might strike readers as eccentric begins to appear perfectly normal.
Because so much of the novel is a study of T.’s psychology and how he changes over time, the book tends to meander through T.’s contemplation of his various situations, often retracing epiphanies that the reader might already surmise through T.’s actions in the story. Occasionally, this makes Millet’s exposition feel redundant, and at some points the novel seems to doubt the intelligence of the reader as it hedges on the didactic: “Empire only looked good built against a backdrop of oceans and forests. It needed them. If the oceans were dead and the forests replaced by pavement even empire would be robbed of its consequence.”
What happens when readers aren’t required to do more of the work of making meaning, when we aren’t pushed to break a mental sweat in the process of imagining a novel’s world? T., despite his growing consciousness of endangered animals and what it means to be the last of one’s kind—to have lost not only one’s family and home, but also one’s wildness, whatever it is that makes one a particular sort of creature, continues to think largely of his finances and profits, of orderly streets and cities, of subdivisions and resorts. While T. begins seeking out these last animals, he never really considers—let alone acts upon—the possibility of working against the tide of death, and the book reads as an elegy for an already extinct world, rather than a call to arms against the dangers of possible extinction. T. claims empathy for creatures but never engages in an active response to their plight, and perhaps as readers, we’re left in the same space: a place in which we experience a connection to T. but let his story wash over us as a dream, not as a transformation in which we actively take part.
Jennifer Perrine’s first book of poetry, The Body Is No Machine, was published by New Issues in 2007. Recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in journals including Crab Orchard Review, Ellipsis, Green Mountains Review, RATTLE, and Third Coast. Perrine lives in Des Moines, Iowa, and teaches at Drake University.