Lydia Millet is so entrenched in the ranks of my favorite authors that I’m a little surprised it’s taken me so long to track down her early backlist. My Happy Life (2002) is one such piercing, early work, a slender character study that doubles as insightful social commentary.
The novel’s first-person protagonist has no name, but her personality leaps off the page: a woman, scribbling her life story on the walls of the condemned mental hospital where she’s been abandoned and forgotten. Under such bleak circumstances, the details of her life are revealed, a chronicle of lifelong abuse and neglect that should be wholly dispiriting… except that to her, it is not. The woman’s peculiar disorder leads her to see the most heinous of behaviors in the most positive light possible, rendering her tale of woe an odd, sideways celebration of her unique spirit, even as it scathingly indicts the cruelties of human society.
My Happy Life is a blisteringly quick read, characterized by Millet’s accessible but eloquent writing, and it successfully dresses its thematic mission in a memorable, dark plot. It also clocks in at just the right length to make, but not belabor, its point. If there’s a drawback, however, it may be the novel’s sheer calculation; in some respects, it feels like a literary exercise contrived to send a specific message, to elicit a specific effect. Does it take opportunistic literary license with mental health? Does it treat the subject credibly? I can’t speak to that, but the material raises those questions, which is slightly distracting to full immersion in the narrative. I do think the author’s heart is in the right place, the novel’s startling tonal clash makes for a unique, eye-opening perspective on human cruelty. Ultimately, I’m not sure this one quite connected with me on the level of Millet’s more recent books, but devotees of her body of work should find it yet another entertaining and thought-provoking read.