Death, that ineludible itch we all scratch sooner or later, permeates Lydia Millet’s new novel, Magnificence. Death is a catalyst; a channel; provocation, termination, and eventual decimation of physical life, but it’s also a vessel to eternal pervasion—the first prevocational push. Death births a different life.
A different life is what Susan Lindley wants—sort of. She doesn’t really know what she wants because she’s depressed, though she doesn’t tell us this; but we can surmise with little dissent or discord that she is severely depressed. The distance, the detachment, the frigid outlook and glacial pace of thought; her mind doesn’t race but slugs along, writhes and withers fecklessly, blearily. Every event and occurrence is another rap on the door of death, every death another step closer to oblivion.
Millet writes in a close, tight third-person, almost free-indirect in its drifty, lofty descriptions, at once grounded in a tangible reality but almost dreamily distant, with the past trickling in and blending with the present, always tinged with sorrow and Susan’s pseudo-paranoiac perceptions. When we meet Susan, she’s riding shotgun, her paraplegic daughter, Casey, is driving (she says it gives her a feeling of control and movement she doesn’t have in her wheelchair); they’re on the way to the airport to pick up Hal, Susan’s husband and Casey’s father, who is just returning from a brief and unexpected excursion to find and retrieve Casey’s boyfriend, T., who went off to go find himself, Kerouac style.
Susan spends the majority of the first few pages discussing her apprehension with gender and the melancholy of modernity and the innate inequality of men and women. Her anxiety saturates the narration: “T., who had always seemed the most solid of young men. It went to show you. The madness lurked in all of them. Smack a man down in nature and he returned to his Cro-Magnon roots.”
But when they arrive at the airport, Hal doesn’t come out to greet them. Instead, a disheveled T. is waiting, tells them that Hal was stabbed to death in a gutter, died in T.’s arms. We aren’t privy to the conversation: Millet fades away as T. tells them he has bad news, and fades back in as Susan and Casey and T. watch the luggage carriers drag Hal’s coffin out of the bowels of the plane, among the suit cases and back packs: “In an instant the whole of existence could go from familiar to alien; all it took was one event in your personal life. You might think you were only a mass of particles in the rest of everything, a mass exchanging itself, bit by bit, with other masses, but then you were blindsided and all you knew was the numbness of separation.”
Millet displays calm insolence towards Strunk and White in her use of the passive voice, beginning the book with “It was a stricken love, but still love”; Millet’s passive, possessive descriptions—mostly emotional, rarely sensorial— are a constant subtle reminder of Susan’s aloofness. Is Susan untrustworthy? Is her unspoken depression a veil over objectivity and reliability? She’s consistent in her convictions, but her view of life is steeped in solipsistic pity. Is she a naïf, like Huckleberry Finn?
Millet captures Susan’s passerby thoughts in short, fleeting paragraphs that waft past, as if you could reach out and swipe a hand through their translucent haze. She layers wispy tendrils of prose, short sentences not declarative like Hemingway, and not disjointed like the Demon Dog James Ellroy (who writes in a telegraphic, baroque staccato, bursts of lingual gun fire) but in brief shots comprising a dreamy montage, with prodigious use of fades and dissolve:
“Daytime was better. She went out with first light and walked T.’s dog around the neighborhood; she got coffee in the morning in and took her lunches in restaurants or diners. Sometimes she drove around in a daze. Other times she asked friends over, made sure there were people in the house to life its grimness. When she had to be there by herself she kept to he sun porch and Casey’s room, venturing into the kitchen only when she had to. The two of them spent years in the kitchen.”
When Casey reveals that she’s taken a job as a phone sex operator, a way of stepping into a lusty, fictitious guise away from her real-life afflictions—it seems that Susan’s penchant for fantasizing and dreaming was passed down to her daughter—Susan gets passively irritated. Passive aggression, lethargy’s weapon of choice, seeps into Susan’s many minute conflicts. Her life trickles by slowly, a stillicide populated by non-events and un-ventures, stagnant and dull. Millet portrays life as purged of vitality, flat cola, an effete expedition leading, invariably, to death; and Death is the real adventure, that great jump into the unknown.
Susan is told great tales of Hal’s wonderful generosity—he’s heroic, kind, dearly beloved and, now, dearly missed by coworkers and friends. But Susan doesn’t seem too upset about Hal’s death; he’s now just more empty space in her doily-dour life:
“Once Hal had been beautiful. It was the fading that made him a subject of sorrow, how you could barely see the vestiges of his old beauty. He had never been vain, and because of his lack of vanity he failed to notice what he was losing. In that way a virtue become a liability—he was blind to his own looks vanishing.”
She thinks of Hal as “an object… among the luggage—was it dark or fluorescent where he lay? The rest of space lay against him.” Shortly after Hal’s death, Susan is contacted by a lawyer: her great-uncle Albert died a few months back—“she had barely noticed the death” at the time—and left his entire estate to Susan, possibly, it is speculated, to piss off his tool-of-a-nephew, Steven, who has an equally tool-y son, Tommy. Susan says “what a coincidence”—she just put her house up for sale, and voila! her great uncle keels and gives her a mansion on the outskirts of Los Angeles. Ain’t it a funny world.
Death continues to pervade—to prevail, in a way. Death has a stranglehold on life, with every loss of life like another bursting of some small dam, another deluge of life and otherness flooding the lives of the survivors and benefactors, carrying them like rafts onto some new journey they neither asked for nor expected. Hal’s death frees Susan, in a sense; her uncle’s death provides her with a house and carves a new path. She has a fresh start, but the past lingers closely behind like a dogged apparition.
Her husband becomes a spectral ball-and-chain, as Susan, a self-proclaimed “slut”, is haunted by her various affairs. Not because she feels bad about them—oh, no. One fling she had—a guy referred to as Fantasy Baseball—is regrettable, but that’s because he was immature, not a great catch; the rest are simply consequences of her distant, unloving relationship with Hal (though, by all accounts, from friends and Casey, Susan was the one who stunted the relationship). She starts a new fling, with a lawyer named Jim, which begins to transcend petty adultery (but is it adultery if your husband dies?) and develop into something resembling a real relationship. Jim is married, of course, and he loves his wife, of course; but she doesn’t love him, and he knows this. Jim is smart and stoic, both a foil to and a reflection of Susan.
Susan moves into the new house with the same unenthusiastic numbness that coated her moving out of her old one, like a snail moving from one shell to the next. It doesn’t take long for her to discover her great-uncle’s most fervid hobby— the whole is inhabited by hundreds of mounted animals: bears, reptiles, birds, armadillos, cats. At first she seems unstimulated—are you surprised?—but soon a strange passion percolates; she doesn’t abhor or adore, but she reads books on taxidermy, sends the various animals off to be repaired (the eyes on one creature are bulging and protruding, which means the stuffing inside of its skull has gotten damp with humidity and is now expanding), starts to explain the technicalities of taxidermy to Casey and T. and Jim. “The birds seemed to demonstrate a lack of interest in her personal business,” Millet writes, “so [Susan] put her bed in Birds of the World, which once had been Russia.”
The house is an organism in need of care and attention, like an adoptive child. Susan hires men to come and work in the backyard, where she finds an old concrete manhole cover and ponders its function for most of her time in the house. Susan—so slow to move out of the past, with a big new house harboring old dead animals in desperate need of repair and upkeep, with the haunting presence of a dead husband, with the secrets of this looming mansion begging for dissection and investigation—begins a long, seemingly never-ending excavation in her yard, in search of a basement. The past does not stay hidden in Magnificence—it resurfaces, bobs up and down like a buoy.
At first it seems like aging and inevitable death infiltrate Susan’s life, pour in from ever crack and crevice; but maybe Susan is infiltrating death. Maybe death is the natural order and it’s Susan who continually fights against nature, swims like Sisyphus against the current. She moves slowly, thinks slowly, more languid than meditative, like the current of existence is pushing against her. Maybe middle age is the stale purgatory of humanity, banality as slow, corrosive degradation.
Casey, young and youthful, begins to enjoy her life for the first time since the accident that left her crippled. Hal is lionized in death, a spiritual embalming of his reputation and legacy, like the stuffed and mounted animals serving as expensive decorations in a historic mansion, fulfilling a new purpose. Even the elderly show more vigor than Susan, however lacking in lucidity: T., whose previous girlfriend recently died, has a delusional, dementia-afflicted mother, Angela; the older Angela gets, the more she regresses; the more she regresses, the deeper she descends into a black tar-pit of childlike dependence and handless hassle. T. takes care of her, then bums her onto Susan when he and Casey decide to go globe-trekking. Angela moves in, invites her fellow dementia-addled friends to move in, demands Susan wait on her and concede to her implausible, illogical demands (she wants a slumber party with her friends, most of whom don’t even know what year it is).
Susan’s young daughter grows independent, the elderly Angela essentially becomes a child again, and Susan is left as caretaker of the dead, of the old and dying. Her second chance at life sinks into a prop wash of servitude. She lives a continual wake, embalming the dead and making their flesh vessels more aesthetically pleasing, though she can’t revive them. She can control their aesthetics but not their existence.
And Susan continually invites death into her life—demands it, idolizes it:
“Jim! The dead have sent their bodies down to be with us—the ones with fur, the ones with skin, the ones with scales and hides and feathers. Some of them even have skeletons. They’re more beautiful than we are—golden, orange, an iridescent green, scarlet, the blue of tropical water, the blue of skies, the blue violets. Lions and peacocks, auks and bears. The deep brown of comfort and hibernation.”
She fabricates illusions of death and decay when none is discernible. She insists that she murdered Hal—which she didn’t. If Millet didn’t so beautifully establish Susan’s paranoiac perversion of reality—again, so subtly; she’s not crazy or delusional like Angela, but she views the world through an undeniable gleam of quiet mania, a paranoid pathos—her repeated insistence that she murdered Hal would become irksome. Yes, we get it—you killed Hal (though you didn’t). Thanks for the reminder. But therein lies the beauty ofMagnificence: Millet captures the deposition of depression, not vividly, but opaquely. Because depression isn’t vivid; depression is an opaque obstruction. You may be lucidly aware of your affliction and its sticky-fingered prying into your consciousness, but depression is like the crash after too much coffee—a gray-plaid fog suffusing in your skull, not thick enough to crash ships, but not quite thin enough to penetrate.
Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar remains the epitome of prose as confession, the ultimate entrapment of depression and a keen inspection of feminine frailty, and Millet’s discourse flows in the same vein. But Plath infused humor and color into her story: Esther is empathetic and clever, whereas Susan is purposefully bland. This is both admirable and self-defeating, as we feel no epiphany by novel’s end. We’ve learned no lesson on life. Is this a requirement of literature? Like Nicolas Cage-as-Charlie Kauffman in Adaptation, asking why we need to have characters change and learn life lessons in movies, Millet depicts a woman struggling with life’s many inequalities, and that she survives is reward enough.
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