T. is a lifelong capitalist who discovers young the joys and rewards of accumulating money for its own sake. He hoards small gifts, scams neighbors and eventually grows into a successful real estate developer, a kind of Donald Trump in miniature. He has trouble connecting with other people though and when his central romantic relationship ends with his girlfriend's sudden death, he falls into a strange spiral of self-destructiveness that ends with his disappearance in a Belize jungle.
This is but a summary of Lydia Millet's lovely and strange novel How the Dead Dream, first in her "Extinction" series. All three books concern the relationship of three modern Americans to the natural world. Each book in the series is told from a different character's point of view as the action moves forward. This book starts with T., whose full name we don't learn until the second volume, Ghost Lights, and his childhood and family. His parents appear to have a conventional marriage until his father up and abandons the family leaving T.'s mother distraught and confused, and T. angry and confused. Then she moves in with her son. T.'s relationship with his father resonated with me; Millet conveys T.'s frustration as his father cuts him out of his life then steadfastly refuses to deal with the mess his actions have created. T. forges connections, too, for example with Casey, the daughter of his assistant Susan. Casey was disabled in a car accident and at first T. sees her as an object of pity and his friendship with her as a good deed on his part:
He needed Casey, he thought, because he liked her company, because her presence made him more than he was without it, but he could not deny that at the beginning he had also believed he was doing her a favor. That was where his arrogance had been. It was a mistake to think that because someone had fallen down, someone was injured or sick or less than complete, you were giving more to them by your association than they were giving you. It was a bad mistake.Thus grows his awareness that he is not at the center of his own life. Then his girlfriend Beth's death and harm that comes to his beloved pet complete his sense of powerlessness and push him so far outside of himself the reader is left wondering if he will ever come back.
T. grows from a self-centered existence to one where he knows he is part of a larger world, learning to love, learning to accept loss in all its forms, even the loss of one's definition of self. It's not just a didactic tale of capitalism versus environmentalism but how we fit into the world, the natural world and the world of other people and how our losses mirror bigger changes. Millet reminds me of Margaret Atwood before she went post-apocalyptic, and this is a book whose politics emphasize the personal alongside an awareness of the larger issues at stake. It's a book about identity and the forms it takes, about learning from the world around you and learning from yourself and others, about including the whole world in your world to achieve balance and presence. It's a fascinating and beautiful novel and a challenging, unusual and moving series I can't recommend strongly enough.
I'll be reviewing volume 2, Ghost Lights, soon, and you can find my review of Magnificence, the third volume, here.
FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.