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Jul/Aug 2007 Reviews & Interviews

An Interview with Lydia Millet

by Alissa Nuttling


Millet's shocking yet poetic tale of survival in a cruel world, enlightenment, and transcendence will rock readers to their very core. --Donna Martin of Booklist about My Happy Life

Buy now from Amazon! Lydia Millet is a literary superhero with infinite changes of leotards. As a former editor at Hustler Magazine, Millet predictably heard the joke about people who are not bi but try-sexual, meaning they will try anything once. Try-genre(al), then, is perhaps a fitting (though imaginary) adjective for Millet's literary proclivities. Her novels range from works of (cannibal-leaden) fabulism to (trailer park foregrounded) political satires to (dead physicist cult swarming) lyrical quests of conscience and forgiveness. Each novel is both a delicious departure from its predecessor and a delicious return into her genius.

My Happy Life (Soft Skull 2002/2007), winner of the Pen-USA Award for Fiction, is the careful tale of a young woman whose life of adversity continues to proceed as she finds herself locked in a room of an abandoned mental hospital. Her naive and often humorous optimism centers joy within an otherwise dim and contained landscape.

From My Happy Life:

At one party I wandered to on a Sunday evening in summer, I sat down at a table across from an ancient woman. There were streamers dangling from the branches of trees and glass bowls full of punch with thin orange slices. Presently I looked at this old woman and I saw that she was crying without even moving her face. I had not spoken to her, and still I did not say a word. But we were both sitting at the picnic table, which was covered in a checkered cloth of red and white.

The tears came from her eyes and ran down her cheeks and fell onto the red and also onto the white, where I observed them. She was resting her wrinkled elbows on the tabletop. Around us there were people dancing slowly with their arms on each other's shoulders and waists.

All the people dancing were quite ancient, for the party was outside a building where only ancient people lived.

Finally I started crying too.

This went on for a few minutes, until the old woman stopped crying herself and reached across the table.

"We're not alone," she said.

Then she said she was tired and asked me to come inside and put her to bed. She had a room that she said was her home. In her room she lay down on her back, with her head propped up on some pillows. I sat on a chair beside her. I saw there was a stuffed animal on the bedside table, and it was a camel. It too was ancient, of threadbare blue plaid and with the stuffing coming out. I looked out her window and I thought that such a vastness as the sky would take us all in, for there was plenty of room.

Just when I thought she was falling asleep, she said, "Would you like to see a trick?"

I said yes. So she held out her right wrist and told me to place my fingers there, on the vein.

"You feel that?" she asked, and I nodded. "That's my pulse, my heartbeat. Keep your fingers on it and you'll see."

She closed her eyes. So we were peaceful there, waiting and not waiting. After a while I forgot about the trick and looked out the window at the stars again. I considered galaxies, which I had read about. Next I considered dusty brown planets, where three yellow moons hung low in the sky and the purple seas lapped warm and soft. I certainly hoped that such planets existed. The woman's hand became heavy. I was thinking of also going to sleep, curling up on the bed at her feet, when I noticed that the flicker of her pulse was gone.

I asked, "Is that the trick?"

I looked at her for a long time, but there was no answer. So I crept away.

 

AN     In many ways this follows the form of a coming-of-age story, although the protagonist's many obstacles (being enslaved, tortured, impregnated, etc.) mean that her actualization is frankly the fact that she's survived. Yet at times the voice seems very close (humorously, sardonically) to lenses such as Judy Blume's classic Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret. Did you feel a type of responsibility to this character to keep the lights from turning all the way out? It's ironic to say, but this book could've been even darker…why didn't it take that road?

LM     Part of the impulse behind this book came from my irritation with personal hardship memoirs, that is, memoirs that tell of sufferers rising above their addictions, imperfect parenting, et cetera. I'm not making so bold a statement as to say that addictions and parenting aren't important. But the category of popular writing that chronicles individual triumphs over adversity, taken as a whole, sends a disturbing message about the culture that produces it. The genre plays out a deep-seated idea that individual will and individual action is where huge social problems should get resolved, and that's—well, it's anti-government, for starters, and I'm pretty much in favor of the whole democracy-type deal. So I wanted to turn the genre on its head a little, and when I say that, I mean turn it on its head purely for my own spectatorship, since readers of hardship memoirs outnumber my readers, I'm guessing, by a good million to one. It's not a strict satire or parody, true, but the shape of this novel mirrors the shape of those memoirs: bad things happen, and the protagonist rises above them. That's the what in what happens. It's mostly the how that's different from adversity memoirs, the how and maybe the why.

AN     In all your books but in this book especially, the accepted notion that "suffering leads to growth" finds complication. What's important about novels where the character is not a better person at the end than at the beginning?

LM     Of course we learn from our experience, blah blah, I mean how else are we supposed to learn? But it seems to me that adult lives are not chiefly lives of discovery but of calcification and sedimentation: we become more rigid and we become more passive, buried in the sand that blows over us like, you know, in that Kobo Abe book. And rarely, punctuating these long plateaus of sameness and non-learning, there are moments of rapture. In such moments we feel how near we are to touching truth, but how far away truth is, and how always and forever it will hover there beyond our reach. This tortured frustration is human experience at its best. Many of my characters are caught up in moments of rapture and recognition, indeed such moments pop up like jack-in-the-boxes, because what else is worth the price of admission, finally? Myself, I live for those moments.

AN     In the case of this book, the beginning really is the end in that we're told the story of her past from the present­the book is really an act of discovery for readers to learn how the main character ended up locked in the room of an abandoned mental hospital. Why did you want the novel's journey to begin from there?

LM     It's not that I wanted to bum people out from the get-go. But I wanted a minimal situation, a situation that wasn't so grounded in the mood of a particular time or place and yet was as specific as prison, as limited. That said, though, I really hate movies that are set-pieces, like Jodie Foster stuck in a closet or sweaty guys in a submarine…in fact the more I reflect on this, the more I see the hostility, in a sense, of putting my character in a room and then asking people to read about that--but it's a kind of hostility I admire, following Beckett, I guess I'd have to say. Nth-generation Beckett. And most of the book takes place outside the room, so it's not as dull as it threatens to be.

AN     Do you think this book could have been as effective with a male narrator? What was your impetus for making her a woman?

LM     I do write a lot of male narrators, but women are the "niggers" of the world and all that. I'm quoting here of course. I wanted a quintessential victim.

AN     The narrator has a near-saintly capacity for forgiveness and positive thought; her charm often lies in how much she finds to be appreciative and grateful for within grotesque situations. Yet as a reader, I never felt admonished or that I was being told to appreciate what I have. Was the narrator's perspective more a tool of characterization to deepen her innocence and naiveté, or more a tool of theme?

LM     Both, because what I wanted to praise in My Happy Life was simply imagination. Of course even as I elevate it in the book—the capacity to imagine yourself, in a sense, out of the material world, out of your isolation, out of your personal, day-to-day reality—I also want to convey an impression of how sad and how ludicrous it is that we should need this transfiguring and invisible mental power mainly to liberate us from our own society.

AN     Unlike much of your other, more overtly political fiction, this novel is free from specific dates and historical figures. But the fact that this story comes from a character that can truly be labeled "crimeless" seems to agree to a very political undercurrent. This novel's first publication came less than a year after the September 11th attacks and will now be republished during the ongoing "War on Terror." What implications do you feel like this book has for our current political situation?

LM     It was written before September 11th, but in that it's about victims, and we have a hard time as a culture imagining anyone but ourselves as victims, I guess it's relevant enough. We think about American victims a lot—"the troops" are hero-victims, for instance, and if you don't "support" them, though no one says what this means exactly, you're a kind of silent aggressor—and at the same time we have a casual contempt for outside victims, the victims of our own actions. Example: we put on elaborate, heavily televised mourning rituals across the country for the 32 innocent people killed at Virginia Tech in April, but there's no mourning at all for the civilian women and children killed every day in Iraq, whose numbers exceed that 32 by many orders of magnitude and who are no less innocent. As a culture we have a nearly sociopathic lack of empathy for the rest of humanity. Call them the non-Americans. Imagination could help us with that, if only we let it.

AN     Aside from the narrator, there are no empathetic characters in this book. Why couldn't you have cut her a break and given her at least one friend?

LM     She does have passing friends--the woman who shows her maps, the little girl named Amanda, the blind man she reads to in the shelter. But no, she doesn't have any friend who lasts from cradle to grave. Most people don't.

AN     Despite the novel describing and implying so many horrifying acts of inhumanity, I find myself continuously returning to the words "loveable," "endearing," and "hopeful" due to the voice—My Happy Life seems to make pretty concrete arguments of how desperately people need love, and how love can fill spaces of intense void and fracture. That's quite a feat! In writing this novel, were there ever moments when you felt like that hope was in danger of being eclipsed by the character's circumstances?

LM     I did fear readers might feel oppressed. Some of them do. Some cry at the book, or find it hard to read the icky parts. To them I say, go ahead and cry. When I was a pre-teen I used to lie on my bed and read things like Melanie's death scene in Gone With the Wind and sob for hours at the terrible poignancy of the human condition and how no one, no one but me could ever possibly understand that terrible poignancy and its many contradictions. Those were good times.

AN     That was your Happy Life. This narrator never does cry; in fact the title of the book is ironic to readers but not to her. The closest her grief comes to mirroring a "predicted" response is when her child is stolen. Why was this act singled out as the one time her optimism was truly broken?

LM     Because nothing could interfere with that kind of grief--not the most utopian delusion in the world. If she were impervious to the removal of her child, she would have to be incapable of emotion, and that's not the person I was writing about.

AN     I didn't cry during this book. Does that make me a sadist? Would a romantic relationship between me and someone who did cry have any hope of making it?

LM     Sure, man. I cry ten times more often than my husband. In fact he cries exclusively at movies, never at personal tragedy. And we get along just fine.

AN     You've had to defend aspects of this character's narration—namely, that a character with so little education wouldn't have as comprehensive a vocabulary as she does. Why was it important to you that her language be sophisticated?

LM     In a book about imagination, finally, I couldn't really restrict my words to the most basic ones. It had to have a texture that demanded some level of verbal diversity.

AN     Opposed to your authorial imagination, the narrator's "imagination" works in a far different way than most of the personal hardship memoirs you mentioned­escapism via usual fantasy (imagining herself as a princess, on an island, etc.) doesn't occur. How would you describe her imagination?

LM     It's an imagination of feeling rather than story--an instinctive imputation of the best motives to everyone. An obvious model is Candide, except that I don't mean to mock this character but to celebrate her.

AN     If this book was made into a movie, who would play the main character?

LM     Winona. Obviously.

 

Read a review by Niranjana Iyer of My Happy Life in this issue of Eclectica.

 

Novels by Lydia Millet:

Omnivores
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 1996
ISBN 1565120892

George Bush, Dark Prince of Love: A Political Romance
Scriber Paperback Fiction, 2000
ISBN 0684862743

My Happy Life
Henry Holt, 2002
ISBN 1933368764

Everyone's Pretty
Soft Skull, 2006
ISBN 1932360778

Oh Pure and Radiant Heart Soft Skull, 2006
ISBN 0156031035

How the Dead Dream
(Forthcoming 2007/2008)

 

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