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Ghost Lights, Lydia Millet

Ghost Lights is the second in Lydia Millet's interlocking cycle of narratives, following on from where How the Dead Dream finished, changing protagonists to focus not on T., but on Hal, the husband of Susan.

Similar to the previous book, Ghost Lights is a quiet novel, expanding Millet's thematic concern of extinction to take in a cultural focus, turning to the life of a middle aged man who works for the IRS and who, in the years since his daughter's accident, has become less and less a presence in his life. A character portrait more than a narrative based novel, Ghost Lights ultimately falls short of the book that preceded it, due in part because of Millet's need to create a structural bridge between the end of How the Dead Dream and the start of Magnificence, and because Hal, the central character of the book, isn't very interesting.

Indeed, my central complaint of the book is that nothing very interesting happens, at all. After discovering his wife's affair, Hal travels to Belize to aid in the search of T., wherein he stays in a nice hotel, finds T. in a truly unremarkable way, develops a relationship with a German couple, and then goes to a few bad parties. There's the ending, but I didn't much care either way by the time I'd reached it, having toured through Hal's uninteresting life and an uninteresting portrayal of Belize. Now, while the unremarkable narrative matches the unremarkable man, Millet's lovely prose cannot make up for the feeling that it is all just a bit shallow, in the end. From the German's (their names are Hansel and Gretel) to Hal's own response to his marriage breakdown, there's a pervading lack of originality, of Millet coasting, and at the end of the book, I thought how little substance there was in it. How, when placed next to How the Dead Dream, it just felt pale.

At the end of How the Dead Dream, I began to entertain the idea that the three novels of Millet's trilogy would not, by themselves, have enough substance for each to be a singular novel. Taken individually, I thought, I suspect that it would feel fractured, thin, but there is a good chance that, when the narratives are layered, that they will present something quite compelling, and this is what I continue to feel. My opinion is slowly coming to be that the three novels should have been part of one larger novel, with each new narrator just being a new section, one that juxtaposed and complimented the one that came before or after it. Viewed in that fashion, the weakness of Ghost Lights does not have the same condemnation that it carries to an individual book, in part because Millet is, as always, a superb author of prose, and her ability in this and other aspects of craft would easily carry the narrative for its structural weakness. In addition, you would have the final part of the book ahead of you, and it would fill the role of bringing all the points together.

In many ways, my problems with Ghost Lights is that I rather wish Millet had put the series together differently, had decided on a different structure. In that way, it is a strange position to view the book, because it becomes not a question of what I did or didn't like, but rather what she did or didn't write, and that, in the end, simply did not happen.