How the Dead Dream

By Lydia Millet

The name of the hero of award-winning novelist Lydia Millet’s latest moral fantasy is Thomas, but his mother and almost everyone else calls him T. He isn’t an Everyman but he is a modern type, a young California real estate developer who manages to wheel and deal his way into the ranks of the hyper-rich only to arrive feeling empty and alone. He is the Master of the Universe who has lost his soul.

It’s not all his fault. His father abandons the family after coming out as gay. His fiancée dies in a freak car accident. His mother, and this is the most significant loss, disappears into dementia. Even his dog is dognapped. Without any close relationships to give his life meaning and context he drifts into a state where he is possessed by empathy for endangered species. He breaks into zoos and sleeps in their cages. He tracks them down in the wild. He sees them as sharing his position “at the forefront of aloneness, like pioneers. They were the ones sent ahead to see what the new world was like.”

That new world is motherless. And for Millet motherhood represents more than just the natural world, which is being destroyed by men like T., but a primal value, an unchanging love that connects us to every other living thing. It is the strongest thread in a web of connection that is, finally, the only thing that provides human dominion over nature meaning by giving it a context. The meanest creatures beneath our feet – ants, for example, and kangaroo rats – are the foundation of empire. “If the oceans were dead and the forests replaced by pavement even empire would be robbed of its consequence.” Remove one part of the great chain of being and all “complexity would be gone, replaced with dull sameness that stretched out unending.”

It’s a simple message, but Millet does a good job selling it. How the Dead Dream runs fast and deep, managing to overcome caricature characters and weak dialogue with a strong, uncluttered storyline that illustrates a profound spiritual truth. Through his “terrible sympathy” for dying animals T. recognizes what is human in them. What he realizes the dead dream of is the mother that they, T., and all the rest of us, have lost.

Review first published in Quill & Quire, January 2008.

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