A cheating widow inherits a mansion full of taxidermy animals and secrets in Lydia Millet's new novel
Lydia Millet’s new novel, “Magnificence,” begins with the main character, a secretary in her late 40s named Susan Lindley, on the way to LAX. Her thoughts are a stream of generalizations about men and women — culled, it seems, from poorly digested popular science reporting — both hilariously reductive and dismayingly familiar. “It was hard to be a man,” Susan tells herself. “The men were all insane, basically, due to testosterone.” Women, on the other hand, are “neurotic,” but only intermittently so. “Oddly, the chronic insanity of men was often referred to as stability; the men, being permanent sociopaths, got credit for consistency. Whereas the women, being mere part-time neurotics, were typecast as flighty.”
“Magnificence” is the third novel in a sequence that began with “How the Dead Dream” (2008) and continued with last year’s “Ghost Lights.” You could say that the thematic thread running though all three books is endangered species, but that would give the erroneous impression that Millet’s fiction is didactic or activist. True, T., the main character of “How the Dead Dream,” a real estate wunderkind who became obsessed with vanishing animals after his girlfriend died, has, by “Magnificence,” turned eco-warrior. But T.’s efforts are little more than background noise in the story of Susan, who once worked for him. It is the people in Susan’s world who strike her as endangered — or, in the case of her husband, Hal, who was murdered at the end of “Ghost Lights” — extinct.
Hal was walking down the street in a South American town when he was killed in a mugging. A habit-bound IRS employee, he had come to this unlikely spot in search of T., who disappeared into the jungle while in pursuit of obscure metaphysical goals. But Hal would never have volunteered for the quest if he hadn’t been profoundly shaken after discovering Susan fooling around with a co-worker.
In “Magnificence,” we learn that this fateful tryst was only one in a long series of adulteries. Being a self-described “slut,” Susan believes, is “the sole creative gesture of her life,” an extravagant, willfully selfish secret that offers “the only space … Where she was not only a dutiful mother or wife.” She loved Hal, but that love was “vegetarian,” it had ” the meekness of grass-eaters.” Her dispassionate affairs made her feel like a carnivore. Now, having indirectly caused Hal’s death, she considers herself something worse, a murderer: “She thought along those lines daily. The murderer poured a cup of coffee. The murderer went to sleep.”
Then, unexpectedly, a great-uncle she barely remembers dies and leaves her a ramshackle mansion in Pasadena filled with an impressive array of taxidermy. She pads its shabby corridors, contemplating rooms whose contents have been organized by regions — the African savannah, the Arctic, the rain forest — trying to figure out the man who assembled it all. That’s not the only mystery, either, since the house’s original blueprints indicate a sizable basement that Susan can’t find access to anywhere.
In the iconography of gothic fiction, a big old house like this represents both the heroine’s psyche and the secret-haunted history of a family. But just as “Magnificence” isn’t quite a political narrative, it also isn’t quite a psychological one, either. Instead, this is a novel of ideas or philosophy, disguised as the portrait of one woman’s midlife upheaval. Susan’s uncle, like Susan herself and like much of the human race, was a hunter and a collector. But can the habits of the past, and the easy categorization we so often revert to (sociopathic men, neurotic women), be defied? Is it possible for a predator to become something less rapacious and destructive? Susan, a middle-class former hippie, surveys her new kingdom and has her doubts: “The only real selfishness was wealth like this. The commandeering of places, their fencing in, the building of palaces there — arches, gardens. No other selfishness mattered. All other selfishness was petty, as tiny as blown dust.”
Gradually, however, the mansion begins to collect living inhabitants. Susan refurbishes the fish ponds and fills them with koi. T.’s senile mother moves in, trailing an entourage that includes her caretaker and a gaggle of old-lady friends. Susan’s latest, and most serious, lover, a lawyer who shares her bemused humor, is divorced by his wife and ends up spending most nights with her. Susan discovers a concrete slab in a back corner of the grounds and workmen are brought in to excavate.
Millet’s distinctive prose style is rooted in an often very funny, rambling vernacular studded with pop-cultural flotsam and jetsam. “As far as she went,” Susan thinks, “she had ended Hal already. That black deed was done. Hal was over. Nothing could bring him back, nothing she did, no virgin purity, no nuns.” The nuns make little overt sense (Susan isn’t Catholic), but somehow they fit, and when they turn up again in her picture of the conventional heaven — “there they all were, all the ones you had known, cavorting like pretty, liberated nuns upon the alpine meadows green, frolicking, also like pretty nuns, their vows now shed in favor of romance, in stately, shining ballrooms” — you understand that Susan’s notion of goodness has been thoroughly colonized by the banal imagery of “The Sound of Music.”
Every so often, as with most of us, Susan gets an intimation of something more. Then, Millet’s writing slides into another register, a restrained loveliness capable of stopping the reader in her tracks. “She could move peacefully between the walls as though she walked a neat path in history,” Susan muses about her daily routine in the mansion, “as though her time and place were not the product of chance at all but of an ancient arrangement. She lived in the soft footprint of a ceremony.”
Wrenched out of her customary context, Susan comes to understand that she lost her capacity for hope after her daughter, Casey, was left paraplegic in an automobile accident. Millet doesn’t exactly deplore that loss — the presumption of safety is one of the first-world delusions her novels seek to dismantle. Susan ricochets between the petty grasping of everyday life, a despairing materialism in which she sees the universe as an “unending stream of atoms, churning atoms out of which significance beamed — significance, but not purpose,” and — more and more, little by little — a tentative, necessarily incomplete transcendence. Given that everything must be lost in the end, what, if anything, should we try to save? For Susan, it is “the gone ones … we live with them still, we always will.”
More Related Stories
- What's 2013's "Gone Girl"? Here are this summer's best reads
- Fox executive behind "Does Someone Have to Go?" leaving the network
- Hillary Clinton memoir shows up on Amazon
- A brief history of Jennifer Weiner's literary fights
- First look: Joaquin Phoenix, Marion Cotillard shine in "The Immigrant”
- No women allowed: Summer music festivals are dudefests, again
- Vivica A. Fox tapes anti-gun PSA in front of poster for her movie
- This is what Guy Fieri looks like as a balloon
- Mariah Carey's rambling, cursing, dress-popping "Good Morning America" concert
- Fox's new reality TV show threatens regular people with unemployment
- Amanda Bynes arrested after hurling bong from window
- Steamy lesbian-sex movie has Cannes abuzz
- Stop what you're doing and go watch "Borgen"
- Teenage girl claims she was beaten up for looking like Taylor Swift
- Mike Judge: "Bowling for Columbine" made me pro-gun
- New York chef serves up eight-course meal around "Arrested Development" jokes
- HLN: Jodi Arias "pleading for her life" got us a ratings win!
- Michael Ian Black on Maron feud: He "considered me a poseur"
- Chekhov's story mirrors Russia's own
- Pussy Riot member Maria Alyokhina denied parole
- Joe Francis apologizes for calling jury "retarded"
Featured Slide Shows
The week in 10 picsclose X
- 1 of 11
Lisa Montgomery embraces her nephew Thursday after a tornado tore apart her home in Cleburne, Texas. The twister killed six people and destroyed entire swaths of the North Texas town.
Credit: AP/LM Otero
Jack McMahon, the defense attorney for abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell, speaks outside the Criminal Justice Center in Philadelphia Tuesday. His client was convicted of killing three babies in his clinic, and will serve multiple life sentences.
Credit: AP/Matt Rourke
A photo taken Monday captures Vice President Joe Biden's response to a Milwaukee second-grader's innovative proposal to end America's epidemic of gun violence. This guy!
Credit: AP/Jenny Aicher
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., flanked by a grouper-eyed Michele Bachmann, addresses the IRS' admission that it targeted Tea Party groups in advance of the 2012 election. In an op-ed for CNN Thursday, the Kentucky senator slammed the president for his faux outrage.
Credit: AP/Molly Riley
Ousted IRS chief Steven Miller is sworn in on Capitol Hill Friday. Miller testified before the House Ways and Means Committee on the extra scrutiny the agency gave conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status.
Credit: AP/J. Scott Applewhite
Attorney General Eric Holder pauses as he testifies on Capitol Hill before the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday. Holder is under fire, among other things, for the Justice Department's gathering of phone records at the Associated Press.
Credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster
O.J. Simpson sits during an evidentiary hearing at Clark County District Court in Las Vegas, Nev., Thursday. Simpson, who is currently serving a nine-to-33-year sentence in state prison for armed robbery and kidnapping, is using a writ of habeas corpus to seek a new trial.
Credit: AP/Las Vegas Review-Journal/Jeff Scheid
Major Tom to ground control: On Sunday astronaut Chris Hadfield recorded the first music video from space, a cover of David Bowie's "Space Oddity."
Credit: AP/NASA/Chris Hadfield
When it rains it pours. President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference Thursday with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, inexplicably inspiring an #umbrellagate Twitter meme.
Credit: AP/Jacquelyn Martin
A smoke plume rises high above a road block at the intersection of County A and Ross Road east of Solon Springs, Wis., Tuesday. No injuries were reported, but the the wildfire caused evacuations across northwestern Wisconsin.
Credit: AP/The Duluth News-Tribune/Clint Austin
Recent Slide Shows
- 1 of 11