Lydia Millet probes life’s meaning as only Lydia Millet can in “Magnificence” – the third, and perhaps most striking, novel in a trilogy that is, at once, comic, tragic and strange as can be.
Like its predecessors – “How the Dead Dream” and “Ghost Lights” – “Magnificence” is a book that may be read alone, a veritable feast for the mind (and the funny bone).
For we don’t read Millet for her unlikely plots, or even for her curious characters. We read Millet to find out what she is thinking, in her droll, subterranean way – about living and partly living, about being-gone-yet-still-here and about how a sudden misstep can alter one’s world.
“A mistake in judgment, an instantaneous mistake,” Millet’s protagonist, Susan, muses in “Magnificence” as she learns that her husband, Hal, has been stabbed to death during a robbery in Belize.
“If only someone had told the thief there were only traveler’s checks in that wallet,” she thinks before going to a deeper level of reasoning: “her own identity, a side effect, was sunk and submerged in this new description, the stabbed-husband woman. As Hal lost his life she lost her own, as Hal was a murder victim she was an extension of him. That slut, that slut with the husband who got stabbed to death.”
Ah, yes, “the slut.” It makes Susan “feel better to think selfishly” and so Hal’s death instantly becomes all about Susan. She was having an affair. It was what sent Hal to Belize in the first place. Therefore it was she who was the prime murderer here. She looks at the mourners at Hal’s funeral service and thinks, “They knew of the stabbing bit but not the real culprit.”
Millet lets Susan drift – “her life full of background noise, a dull and droning clamor … or a ringing, a dreadful ringing like tinnitus that only diminished when she drank or smoked …” – until a great-uncle Susan only met once leaves her his estate in Pasadena.
It is here that “Magnificence” becomes a full metaphor for life and death, their grandeur and their lessons. For Great-Uncle Albert’s “house” is a mansion filled, every room, every floor, with taxidermy – “deer, bull moose, antelope, gazelle … a magician’s stage, a Goth bordello … large cats, wild dogs, foxes, timber wolf, American minx … birds of prey and common quail … bears! … and fish. Fish in the kitchen.”
Susan considers this “her windfall house, a new life. The life of someone else … She was alone now. But on the other hand she was also a queen, the private, unseen monarch of a kingdom of dust and faded velvet and the great horns of beasts. She dwelled in a palace. So she had everything and nothing at once, had been struck down and raised up. In one respect it was not surprising, because the world’s systems tended to elevate crime …”
As in the earlier books of Millet’s trilogy, Susan’s enigmatic employer, “T.”, and her feisty paraplegic daughter, Casey, are also on hand. So, soon, is “Jim the lawyer,” Susan’s latest conquest, a man with whom she feels she has a bond – as he is the “kind of person who could kill someone.”
Enter into this mix some shirttail cousins who want to challenge Great-Uncle Albert’s will and T’s aging mother who, although often lost in an advancing dementia, is wily enough to see Susan’s “palace” as better living quarters for herself and her assisted-living cronies.
This way may lie madness – but not with Millet at the helm. Susan will begin to see, instead, where the very fabric of her being is rent. Can you “be guilty of being yourself?” she will ask. Do all of us “live with imperfection?”
In time, the perfect storm of evolution and extinction under her roof – along with a posse of fading, elderly women, not to mention Susan’s newly opened eyes, and the great romance that becomes Casey’s and T.’s – will make Susan’s life whole, “a sumptuous feast.”
But it is in the telling of this that Millet triumphs. The sheer depth of her research into taxidermy, species and subspecies is startling.
And she goes beyond this, again and again, letting Susan see the animals as “murderers too.” The animals also give Susan solace, and she caresses them in return, drawn to whatever their stories, their pursuit of prey may have been:
“She’d done her own killing in the passage of daily life, not because she wished to inflict pain. The cats and the wolves only did it for food: they looked cruel but they weren’t, she told herself. By contrast she looked innocuous and that was equally deceptive. She’d been greedy, she’d been selfish: maybe greed was her sin, or the variant of it that was lust … In the end all of the sins seemed the same to her, softer and harder forms of the same murder.”
The question then is, “If she kept being a slut, would someone die again?” We find we are in this with Susan. Millet has that power, to bring the reader with her – particularly into dark holes.
The inclusion of T.’s failing mother, Angela, and her cohort of equally failing friends is nothing short of inspired. Manipulative in the way of children, and more aware than they let on – the women serve as a protective foil for the machinations of Susan’s changing mind. Millet treats them all tenderly, yet with great humor.
Susan is the lone heroine in Millet’s fine trilogy. (T. held the protagonist’s position in the first novel; Hal in the second.)
And, as a flawed woman, Susan grows on us, she who was faithful to Hal until the accident that rendered their daughter a paraplegic and “the sadness of the future had dazzled her. She turned her face away.”
Circumstances turn on this spit until new circumstances change its direction – much like Angela and her old ladies sitting, soundlessly in a room “as though they were inevitable.” Millet couldn’t – or wouldn’t – tell this to us in any other way.
By Lydia Millet
256 pages, $25.95
Karen Brady is a retired Buffalo News columnist.