Lydia Millet: "If men’s cruel tyranny over women is the matter at hand, there’s a bored disinterest of the liberal literary establishment"

The author of "Dept. of Speculation" grills the author of "Mermaids in Paradise" on literary women, comic novels

Published November 11, 2014 11:58PM (EST)

Jenny Offill, Lydia Millet        (Michael Lionstar/Ivory Orchid Photography)
Jenny Offill, Lydia Millet (Michael Lionstar/Ivory Orchid Photography)

Jenny Offill's novel "Dept. of Speculation" is new in paperback. Lydia Millet's "Mermaids in Paradise" is in stores today. We asked them to discuss their books and careers.

Jenny Offill: "Mermaids in Paradise" is a such a funny and giddily absurdist novel. Does it feel of a piece with your other satirical novels? Or is this new territory?

Lydia Millet: The comic novels I did when I was in my 20s had a harder edge — less sympathy for people. Or a sympathy that was harder to detect: Characters’ foibles and obsessive bents were unrelenting, like caricatures.

This new book has less of a cartoon sensibility, despite the fact that it has mermaids in it. Characters’ blind spots don’t obscure such a large swath of their vision, so they’re a little less opaque. The other thing that’s different, I hope, is there’s more space between the lines, more room for the reader’s mind to move around on the page. More breathable air. A salt breeze off the sea.

You’re well known for your serious novels, such as "Magnificence," "Oh Pure and Radiant Heart" and "My Happy Life." One phrase you seem to get a lot is "perennial critics' favorite.” But it seems to me your comic novels have gotten less attention. Is there a bias at work here?

I don’t know the answer in my own case, though reviewers were certainly more opposed to my earlier, broader satirical efforts than the novels I’ve done recently. But about bias in general, I’ve puzzled over the divide between how funny vs. “serious” literary books are received, at least here in the United States. Can it be as simple as, the literary establishment can’t easily interpret humor as having a particular message, so it tends to discount humor categorically?

It’s that whole weird idea of literature as instructive, as a tool for right living. I once got asked quite seriously what the “takeaway” for my novel was and I was at a loss. I mean, what? "Stand by Your Man," maybe, or how about "Be True to Your School"?

Yeah, our literary establishment does feel — when it comes to choosing, you know, a certain year’s alleged best books or most “important” books or whatever — that it needs to be seen rewarding stories that have unimpeachable motives. It needs to responsibly select the “right” books for the canon, where right usually means humanist, pretty squarely in the bourgeois mainstream, and with a soupçon of intelligence. A touch but not too much. Our typical “important” books support a slightly kinder and gentler status quo, but still: the status quo. Politically and aesthetically, they can’t be revolutionary. We had our revolution; that was then. Now we’re consumers, we can’t be heaving perfectly good bags of Starbucks into the water.

So established tastemakers stick with picking safe forms of relevance, more often than not — for instance, right now a “serious” book concerned with the suffering inflicted by racism is typically a much better bet for anointment than a “serious” book concerned with the suffering inflicted by men on women. For white liberals, racism is the crime that receives, in our day, by far the greatest and most unquestioned bourgeois penitence. No liberal male would argue racism isn’t bad, but many become visibly impatient with discussions of, say, the pervasive subjugation of, and violence toward, women — a form of moral evil that directly harms more than half the U.S. population and undermines peace and prosperity — yea, even that beloved freedom! — in every corner of the Earth. Still, if men’s cruel tyranny over women is the matter at hand, there’s a bored disinterest of the liberal literary establishment that it would never dare to show on the matter of white tyranny over black. Even though these injustices are twin peas in a pod. In fact I’ve met male writers who are multiply awarded establishment darlings and proud mouthpieces on the politics of race — and wear sexism pinned to their lapels like a flaming badge of cool.

What else do you think is frowned upon as a topic in literary fiction?

Well, the establishment’s also pretty bored by literary work that deals with our treatment of the rest of being — you know, other animals, the rest of life on Earth, the creatures beyond the man-apes. Like the tragedy of how our men treat our women, the tragic way humans treat nonhumans is still, to many U.S. fiction arbiters, also irrelevant as a conversation, often dismissed as a boutique topic that’s the fodder of cranks and tree huggers. Women and the rest of species in existence: two flaming badges of uncool.

“Important” serious books often seem to be picked based on the simplicity and safety of their content as a barometer of upper-middle-class cultural preoccupation, and humor’s too complex and ambiguous to be a flagship like that. Plus it doesn’t seem to demonstrate contrition; basically it doesn’t apologize hard enough for the culture. Right? Earnest books are picked for fancy prizes. Funny books aren’t picked for fancy prizes. Because with funny books, the establishment can’t be absolutely sure where meaning lies. It can’t say: Look how sensitive this treatment of X is. This whole sensitive book is an act of contrition! With a funny book, it’s more like, hmm. Who’s apologizing here? Is anyone apologizing? Is anyone sensitive here at all? The laughter treatment — it’s so tricky! It doesn’t contain clear instructions on how you’re supposed to read it!

Maybe our anointed literary books just have to be earnest ones because earnest ones showcase that soupçon of intelligence. Maybe humor isn’t felt to indicate a genuine commitment to looking smart.

Whoa now. Calm down there, little lady. It’s not worth getting all worked up about. No one’s saying you can’t make your jokes. But it might play better if they were world-weary jokes about war or ironic takedowns of academic folly.

Yeah, war books with humor can enter the canon now and then. Because they’re clearly contrite, and show how war is very bad. And also they’re manly. You know — I’d just like to see funny books that aren’t manly rewarded. I don’t mean books not by men, I mean not manly — say the funny prose of Mary Ruefle, the funny novels of Sam Lipsyte, Nancy Lemann, Percival Everett; the funny short stories of Ben Marcus in "Leaving the Sea." But the bottom line is, I like to read funny books, and sometimes I like to write them, and as long as someone somewhere laughs out loud, you know, at some particular moment — good.

Any reason for placing two honeymooners at the center of the story? Something about their guileless faith in the future adds to the funniness for me.

My own honeymoon, almost 12 years ago now, was three days in a tiny Mexican beach town where, on the first day, there was a horrible boiler explosion that killed a number of people. We were having our very first margaritas of the trip when the explosion rocked the seaside restaurant where we were sitting.

We ran toward it, and my husband actually helped two injured old ladies get out of the second floor of that burning building, and then he and I spent the next two days going back and forth between the very small local hospitals, using our rudimentary Spanish to handle logistics for one of those elderly burn victims, a 96-year-old U.S. tourist named Rose. We finally reunited her with her “young man Jerry,” as she described him, who’d been separated from her in the explosion and was lying abed with no ID in another medical facility. (Turned out the “young man” was 78.)

Anyway, in the end they were flown out in a chopper and our three-night gift package was over and we went home. And that was all the honeymoon we ever had. Maybe I wanted a second chance. A honeymoon with levity. Coral reefs and mythic sea creatures instead of burn victims.

That’s a pretty unbeatable honeymoon story. How did you become interested in mermaids? Has it been an obsession since childhood?

Sure, I’ve liked them ever since Little Bear and his mermaid. And the Little Mermaid of course — the one who horribly perishes, not the Disney one. Mermaids are a curious kind of mythical creature because unlike, say, fairies, which have wings on their backs and thus a supernatural ability to fly, mermaids actually have fewer abilities than we do. I mean they’re not supernatural, they’re more sub-natural. Sure they can swim, but so can we, and they can’t walk! Can’t even sit comfortably, really, due to not having buttocks. They can’t hang out in our world unless they sell their voices or their right to life. I mean maybe they can last for a bit longer than you and I can underwater, but so can Michael Phelps. What they have to offer is basically, bare breasts. Long hair. They’re erotic — though not, I guess, if you’re an ass man.

So that’s most of what they have going for them — they’re like handicapped sex objects, with limited mobility, these beautiful figures of pathos, which interests me since poignancy is one of my obsessive tics. Mermaids and a honeymoon seemed mated to me: female sex symbols and a rite of passage, a ritual journey that’s supposed to be devoted to sex. Those two together were good fodder for light comedy, and also a fitting frame for a drama I wanted to play around with about personal power and the lack of it, personal power and personal impotence.

For many years you’ve worked on conservation issues at the Center for Biological Diversity. Are the mermaids a proxy for endangered species in any way? Is there a sendup of the overall movement here?

Someone recently suggested to me, on a panel, that maybe the mermaids are a stand-in for “charismatic megafauna” — like wolves or elephants, where a kind of cultural circus can form around a species’ endangerment and possible extinction. But hey, sometimes a mermaid is just a mermaid … the truth is, we have far more troubles when circuses don’t erupt over species that are on the brink of extinction. Climate change and mass extinction: These are the most far-reaching and future-transforming emergencies of our time.

I’d like to see circuses erupt everywhere. Because it’ll take a phenomenal act of imagination, as well as bravery, for us to save what’s left to us in the natural world. It’s a leap I desperately want us to take: imagine a world denuded of everything but us. What would we be without the myths and legends in which animals have always starred? What would we be, ourselves, having erased those creatures? Having only stories and pictures remaining? And then, when we understand that — in my dreams at least — nothing remains but to act.

I want to pay attention to these sad points you are making, but I am distracted by the fact that I want to blurb your book thusly: "Lydia Millet is a charismatic megafauna. Read her before she goes extinct."

Is it too late for that? Could Norton squeeze it in?

You need not fear my extinction. Fear my proliferation! I’ve already reproduced!

But I derailed myself right when you were talking about something really important. So let me try again. Every day the newspapers bring us more harrowing news of environmental degradations and the perils of climate change. You’re one of the few novelists who’ve been writing about this for years. Do you think writers have any sort of moral imperative to engage with this issue?

I think not just writers and artists but everyone has a duty, that is, everyone who’s not a small child or struggling just to survive. Everyone who already knows where his or her next meal is coming from should be engaged at some level in the fight over climate and over mass extinction — because this is our children’s future and the future of other people’s children. This place is all we have.

Both climate change and extinction are results of our tyranny over the nonhuman world and our domination of, and exploitation of, whole categories of each other — and those in turn are clearly linked to agriculture, the cattle-industrial complex, capitalism. Our mass killing of our own kind and our mass killing of the rest of being are of a single piece.

The problem for us at this particular hour is, extinction’s not reversible, and the way we’re changing the atmosphere and oceans is only reversible over massive stretches of time, down through the generations of our descendants.

So yeah, if we don’t become near-revolutionary on these crises our governments will certainly do too little, too late, and probably be subsumed themselves in entities with less accountability. And I believe our future grief and impoverishment will be unspeakable. On climate change, we have only a handful of years to make massive changes, according to the scientists. The politicians have to act and only the people can make them, because Royal Dutch Shell’s not going to do it.

What's next?

A book called "Sweet Lamb of Heaven."

I hope it’s your Come to Jesus book. I’ve been waiting for that one.

By Jenny Offill

Jenny Offill's novel "Dept. of Speculation" is new in paperback.

MORE FROM Jenny Offill

By Lydia Millet

Lydia Millet is the author of the novels Sweet Lamb of Heaven, Mermaids in Paradise, Ghost Lights (a New York Times Notable Book), Magnificence (finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize), and six other novels. Her story collection Love in Infant Monkeys was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. She lives outside Tucson, Arizona.

MORE FROM Lydia Millet

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Books Dept. Of Speculation Fiction Jenny Offill Lydia Millet Mermaids In Paradise Satire Writers On Writing