The International Writers Magazine: Review
Ghost Lights by Lydia Millet
W.W. Norton & Company,
2012, pp. 255, $24.95
John M Edwards review
Up front, I’ll admit I know Lydia Millet, author of the new novel Ghost Lights, personally. Thus I am of course obligated to give a good review, which is easy enough considering Lydia writes large, has already absconded with a PEN USA Award for Fiction, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
First off, let me say that Lydia in person is “purty.” She looks like she writes, with poise and pizzazz, whether she is ragging on the precious term “emotional rollercoaster” or enlivening the action with drop comments:
“He was a surplus human, a product of a swollen civilization. He was a widget among men.”
Her wickedly perverse sense of humor is as deliciously burlesque as Dorothy Parker riffing at the Algonquin Roundtable. With already six critically acclaimed books under her equatorial belt, she seemingly writes with her left hand. Oddly, I don’t always remember what her memorably titled novels—“George Bush, Dark Prince of Love” and “Oh Pure and Radiant Heart” --are about, just the elusive aftershocks and fallout from her radioactive prose. They are apparently penned as intentional bestsellers and potential prize-winners.
Ghost Lights centers around an IRS agent named Hal, who flies to Belize on a quest to find his unfaithful wife’s boss, T. (also the protagonist of Millet’s previous novel How the Dead Dream), who is MIA. Like Kurtz from Joseph Conrad’s A Heart of Darkness (and “Apocalypse Now”), T. has gone troppo in the Central American primary rainforest. (Incidentally, Lydia used to work as a dedicated "green" conservationist with NRDC: The Natural Resources Defense Council.)
Grappling with such issues as longing and intrigue, love and marriage, philosophy and philandering, adventure and stasis, this seriocomic book travels like mostly fine weather, but with the occasional literary rain squall. Lydia is a lover of unusual (no: off-kilter) images, such as comparing fish swimming to “the Mohawks of teenage punks drinking in a graveyard.”
With an elegant prose style and believable dialogue, Ghost Lights makes us feel like we are listening in to catty conversations overheard in museum cafes, while Lydia forces us to turn the pages of this well-paced book as deliberately as if flipping through a dictionary looking up that whatchmacallit word way in the back, “widget”:
1. any little device or mechanism, especially one whose name is unknown or forgotten (humorous)
2. a hypothetical manufactured object, considered to represent the typical product of the manufacturer
--Encarta World English Dictionary
Unlike other hotties raised by the Midwestern writers’ colonies (such as the "workshop" they have in Iowa), Lydia Millet, compared to Kurt Vonnegut in The Village Voice, and by me to Italo Calvino with a sex-change op in Amazon.com, lets her characters speak for themselves. Although the dramatis personae includes in many senses winning personalities, we gather from their creator that we are not supposed to be very big fans. Instead, we should admire the peripheral ghost lights scribbled into the blank margins of earth and sky, memory and mneumonics. Or, aurora borealises.
With T. found but turned over to the policia as a murder suspect of his native guide (dead from natural causes), Hal ultimately is fatefully knifed by a beggar boy, and ends up wandering and wondering in an elegiac danse macabre towards death:
“He did not pretend to know much about souls, or the idea of them. He never had. But once or twice he had thought he could hear a soul, a faint music. The spirit moves around us, falls past us invisible like air through air . . . all we are sure we have, all that we know, is the suspicious air of its presence.”
-- Ghost Lights, (p. 255)
Hal’s soliloquy is worthy of a replicant reciting Shakespeare on a rooftop from “Blade Runner.” He also reminded me somewhat of another “Hal,” the fritzing-out computer sadly singing the deathknell “Daisy!” from Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.” With thoughts of his paralyzed daughter Casey and fading wife Susan in his head, Hal ventures like a ghost light--or Gumby--into the blank pages of the eternal spiritus mundi.
Even so, evidently we’re not supposed to be sure we actually like Lydia’s muddled victim "Hal." I for one am glad that Lydia is apparently killing off her apocryphal protagonist in this one, that the hapless Hal will be cut like a foregone conclusion for any chance of rehab and return: hence, it is instead the legendary T. that we are anxious to see survive and appear in yet another new thema. . . .
© John M. Edwards April 2012
Rotten Vacations, Editor