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Lydia Millet's How the Dead Dream

Howthedead300_2 Lydia Millet is one of my favorite writers--she takes chances, she isn't afraid to get political but manages to do it in the context of character and situation so the results aren't preachy. Her latest, How the Dead Dream, is a deceptively quiet novel about T., a real estate developer who, as Millet put it via email recently, fetishizes "actual dollar bills instead of the things they can buy." When he starts to lose his tightly wound control, T. begins to obsess about vanishing species. The details of T.'s descent and the empathic way in which Millet describes animals in the book are both remarkable. On a sentence level, Millet's prose has a restrained but muscular quality--as of emotion just beneath the surface, held in check. Several times I re-read sentences just for the quality of their invention.

When I asked Millet about the idea of taking risks, she responded that she'd like to see "the publishing establishment to take more risks with literary fiction--to throw ambitious, thoughtful and exciting writing the marketing money they throw at schlock. I think people would simply read more, better books if literature were pitched to them as hard as pabulum is. And in other media, too, books should be vaunted – we need desperately for good books to have a more privileged role in pop and mass culture. Corporate America acts like that's not a goal worth pursuing, which is tragic."

Millet's character T. does not see, at least initially, the connectivity in the world, how animals and people are intertwined in a landscape of finite resources and habitat. Millet believes that people in general do understand this point, but that "there's power, and greed, and the hope, or excuse, that science and technology can sweep in and save the world after we eat it up. And that can be a powerful tool for rationalizing doing whatever you want to do...It's [also] interesting that fiction is so much more focused on love than labor--interesting and problematic. It's as though we're afraid to tread on the domain of work and its meanings and reverberations, maybe because of our fear of talking about class, among other fears. Americans have such pretensions to being a classless society--delusions really."

As for the consciousness of animals--there's an encounter between T. and a dying coyote that is particularly powerful--Millet thinks "we should revere the subjectivity of animals even without knowing exactly how our consciousness compares to theirs. It should be enough that these are beautiful, unique beings that have taken millions of years to evolve."

How the Dead Dream is a favorite from 2008 thus far. It's a novel that makes you feel and think simultaneously while being topical, and that's a rare thing.

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