Fifty pages into Lydia Millet’s novel “Magnificence,” her heroine Susan Lindley, a recently widowed secretary, inherits an enormous mansion from an uncle she barely knew. The mansion, located in an upscale neighborhood of Pasadena, is filled with a small museum’s worth of stuffed wild animals: gazelles, a full-grown lion, eagles and owls, a pink flamingo, and an entire room full of bears.
The novel, which until this point has been flatlining through page after page of perfunctory-seeming scenes of Susan being angry at herself for not mourning her late husband enough, suddenly perks up as the reader thinks: What a great place to set a novel. Then, for another hundred pages or so, it becomes clear that this weird old house full of dead animals isn’t so much the setting for Millet’s novel as a distressingly accurate metaphor for the experience of reading it.
The novel is packed to the rafters with exotic examples of homo losangelenus, but despite Millet’s often-skillful literary taxidermy, they seem curiously bloodless, with little but sawdust where their hearts and brains should be. The novel wakes up again at the end when Susan gets curious about a basement that appears on the original plans for the house, but which no one seems to be able to find, and the last few dozen pages turn quickly, sped along by the reader’s relief at finally getting Susan out of that somnolent museum of a house. Magnificence, third in a three-book cycle that began in 2008 with Millet’s How the Dead Dream, is one of those novels that would have been four times as good at one-quarter the length. There is an excellent novella, or perhaps a longish short story, to be written about Susan’s restoration of her uncle’s strange house and what lies beneath it. Perhaps Millet got carried away with her idea, or perhaps, in a world where short stories sell for a few hundred dollars at best and novellas rarely sell at all, she felt she had no choice but to keep writing until she had amassed enough pages to constitute a novel.
Millet, a talented writer with ten books to her credit, struggles mightily to fill the dead air of the early pages with the noise of life. The book begins with Susan’s daughter Casey, a lost soul working as a phone sex operator confined to a wheelchair. Then Susan’s husband Hal dies in a backalley robbery in Latin America, while Susan, a serial adulteress, suffers guilt for not feeling more bereaved about Hal’s demise.
Amid the creak of plot machinery, one keeps finding telltale signs of authorial panic, as in this scene in the opening chapter when Casey, driving her mother to the airport, admits the true nature of the job she has let Susan believe is in telemarketing:
“Yeah. The deal is, it’s phone sex.”
Susan’s head jerked to the left. Her neck hurt, it was so sudden. Past Casey’s profile the side of a moving truck read STARVING STUDENTS.
This is followed by an equally ham-handed bit of grade-school semiotics when Susan learns that Hal, whom they both still presume is alive, knew about Casey’s job: “Another truck; they were boxed in. This one was yellow and read PURITAN.” As if realizing she is coloring in the moral dimensions of her characters with a crayon box, Millet has Susan read the signs again and conclude: “It was a clear rebuke. A rebuke from the world, which knew them both and knew everything. Oh how the world reflected you in its unending streams of atoms, churning atoms out of which significance beamed — significance, but not purpose.”
Far too much of the book is larded with this sort of faux-scientific blather about biological determinism and species decline, much of it delivered in the form of Susan’s internal monologue. This is odd since when Millet does escape the prison of Susan’s consciousness, her scenes can crackle with wit and tart dialogue. At the funeral for Hal, Steven, one of Susan’s cousins, who later contests the will granting her the mansion full of trophy animals, tries to comfort Casey, who stares up at him from her wheelchair.
“Freak thing,” said Steven. “You get a lot of freak…”
He trailed off, his gaze lingering on her chair.
“Huh,” said Casey, and popped another tomato in her mouth. “Better quit while you’re ahead.”
She spun and wheeled off.
“…accidents in your family,” he finished, lamely.
“Uh, yeah,” said Susan.
“Hoo,” he said after a moment, with awkward jocularity, and shook his head. “Sensitive.”
“Well. Her father was just stabbed to death,” said Susan.
Adding to the book’s airlessness is the way the characters seem oddly isolated from the rough and tumble of daily life. Susan is nominally a secretary, and Casey, for a time anyway, does phone sex for a living, but no one ever seems to work in this novel, or more strangely, seems to need to work. Susan’s boss, a man indentified only as T., is a “real estate developer” who undergoes a vaguely defined midlife crisis, which causes him to spend the bulk of the novel flitting about the world, first alone and then with wheelchair-bound Casey, saving beached whales and the jungles of Borneo.
It is pointless to get annoyed by the solipsism of fictional characters, who after all don’t really exist, but it does make them hard to care about. Magnificence is set in the early to mid-1990s, which Angelenos of Millet’s generation will recall, was a tough time in the history of Los Angeles. In 1992, South Central blew up in the wake of the acquittal of the police officers accused of beating Rodney King, resulting in riots that lasted six days causing 53 deaths and $1 billion in property damage. While the city was healing from that disaster, someone killed Nicole Brown Simpson, and for more than a year the city was gripped by the O.J. Simpson trial, which further divided black and white residents of the city.
All of this might as well have been happening on Mars as far as Magnificence is concerned. The specter of race arises only once, glancingly, when Susan, stuck in traffic, goes off on a lengthy internal rant about her irritation at NPR talk show host Terri Gross’s “sycophantic” interview with an unnamed rap star. A little earlier, in one of the rare moments when somebody in the book seems interested in the world beyond their cosseted bubble, Susan notices that a housekeeper she has hired to look after her mother in law is watching television. “On the news,” Millet reports, “someone was dead.”
This kind of tunnel vision might work, and in fact, might even be preferable, if this were a story or a novella, but in a novel one expects people engage meaningfully with the world around them, or at least read the newspaper every now and again. This is doubly true for a novel that, if its final revelations are to be taken seriously, wishes to weigh in on the question at the very heart of human existence: the health of the planet and our role in its decline. In this old house full of the reanimated husks of rare animals relentlessly hunted down by man, Millet has found the vehicle for such a book. But a vehicle, no matter how magnificently designed, is just a stationary hunk of metal until you turn the key that sparks it to life.