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How the Dead Dream, Lydia Millet

How the Dead Dream is Lydia Millet's follow up after the excellent Oh Pure and Radiant Heart, one of the best books, I believe, in the 21st Century so far (an opinion that is subject to change on the century and whim).

Originally published by Soft Skull Press, How the Dead Dream is the first in a trilogy of interlocking novels about extinction, of which the subsequent two, Ghost Lights and Magnificence were published by Norton. I purchased my copy when it was originally published, but have waited to read it since since then for the remaining books to be published so I can read them together--a choice, at the halfway point through Ghost Lights, that I think is going to work out for the best.

How the Dead Dream is the story of T., a young entrepreneur involved in real estate who, in his youth, is obsessed with money, with the figures on it, with the presence of it around him. As he grows older, this obsession matures into a desire for considerable wealth, but under the experiences of life (his parents divorce, his relationship, lived experiences, etc) his love for wealth falters and T. finds himself, eventually, obsessed with animals that are endangered.

Much of the focus of the book is on that transformation. How the Dead Dream is, narrative wise, a character study, and it follows T. from his childhood to his adulthood, stepping aside the plot heavy narrative that was part of Oh Pure and Radiant Heart, but without sacrificing the substance that was part of that novel. Millet handles her narrative well--it is not unfamiliar to her at this point--and the shifts in T.'s character are done excellently across the board, with my only caveat being that his final choice to head down the river (in a way that is not reminiscent of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, despite what many others say) being the only misstep that Millet makes in terms of characterisation. Otherwise, the shifts are done well, with the use of coyote, his family, and his relationships well employed.

Yet there is, by the end, a sense of incompletion within the text. It is a difficult issue to address, because the book itself is the first of a 'trilogy', and thus I shouldn't expect it to be complete within itself. How then, do you judge a sense of incompletion? Is that not, by its very nature, part of a sequence? Well, it is, but part of the problem arises from the choice in narrative style that Millet has chosen. With a plot heavy narrative--one that genre fiction favours, for example--books in a trilogy can have a sense of closure baked into them by tying up a certain amount of plot lines, character arcs, etc. In Millet's novel, since the narrative is so strongly tied to T.'s life, to his emotional growth, and the theme of extinction, Millet has the problem that she doesn't have enough to tie up for a sense of closure, while leaving enough hanging so that it can thread its way through the following books. In the end, what she attempts to do is to tie up her plot through her theme, while leaving the narrative of T. incomplete, and it's not entirely satisfactory, though her narration in the final pages is full of excellent prose.

Which is, of course, something that can not be ignored, since How the Dead Dream is an excellently written novel, with many fine turns of phrase. Her social observations are baked into her prose and are, at turns, insightful and funny, but can also be switched off to let the emotion of the scene--such as lunch with his father--flow. In this regard, Millet never skips a beat, and thus the novel, as it works towards its thematic conversation of arguing the responsibility of humanity in relation to other living creatures on the planet, is always done in a fine and measured hand, though your enjoyment of it, I imagine, will ultimately be decided by your response to her position in the book.