Novel: How the Dead Dream by Lydia Millet

If you even remotely have an environmentalist bone in your body, believe me: moving to Los Angeles will fully convert you. Witnessing the clash of humanity and nature here in the urban desert is unavoidable; it’s a place where driving to the grocery store or running the tap to brush your teeth often feels like contributing to an ecological catastrophe. The world’s environmental problems are writ large in a place like LA.

This may explain why Lydia Millet’s novel How the Dead Dream (2008) impressed me so deeply; well, that and the fact that it’s a brilliant book. It’s a powerfully moving story of a man’s awakening to nature, a potent cocktail of clever humor and deadly serious theme. It’s protagonist is “T.,” a born entrepreneuer, capitalist through and through. He grows up revering the founding fathers, and comes of age a card-carrying member of consumerist America, leveraging his considerable business acumen to luring investors and building a real estate empire. But as he’s busy making money developing the world, the events of his personal life put him in touch with the resulting, inexorable decay of the natural world around him, his urban, money-making instincts increasingly coming into conflict with the impact of humanity’s actions on its environment.

Millet’s Oh Pure and Radiant Heart was dense, thoughtful, exceptional literary SF. As much as I loved that book, though, I loved this one even more: a gorgeously written, insightful, entertaining critique of distinctly American attitudes on consumer entitlement, cavalier growth, and humankind’s devastating effects on the natural world. The storytelling is smooth, concise, and brisk, and the satiric edge reminds me of Kurt Vonnegut Jr. or James Morrow — wry and scathing, but also with a sad, thoughtful sensitivity fueling its insights. T. is a sympathetic, nuanced protagonist who undergoes a convincing transformation, and the novel surrounds him with memorable supporting characters that skillfully service the novel’s strong themes. An uncommonly moving novel, highly recommended; I definitely need to explore more of Millet’s work.

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