What the reader will find in Lydia Millet’s odd and wonderful novel “Ghost Lights’’: a three-legged dog; a mostly happy married couple who cheat on each other; a missing tycoon; a wheelchair-bound daughter of the aforementioned mostly happy couple who when not working as a phone sex operator dates a wheelchair-bound ex-cop with anger issues; a vacationing German family with two table tennis-playing teenage sons; a father with ties to the American military-industrial complex; and a beautiful wife not above having some nighttime sex on the beach with this novel’s conflicted and somewhat morally compromised protagonist, Hal; Belize and its cast of misfits in exile; California, and its cast of misfits not in exile.
What the reader will not find in this, Millet’s eighth book: characters who are motivated by anything that might be usually considered proper novelistic motivation; a God who believes in justice, divine or otherwise; an ending that makes even a little bit of sense.
But the great thing about this novel is it makes the reader forget about the things he thinks he can’t live without in a novel. Except for possibly an ending that makes even a little bit of sense. And even then, the last handful of pages in “Ghost Lights’’ is bizarre enough to be potentially disarming rather than off-putting.
But before we get to the ending: “Ghost Lights’’ is about Hal, an IRS bureaucrat married to Susan, who is obsessed with her boss’s (T., who was the protagonist of Millet’s earlier “How the Dead Dream’’) disappearance in Belize. About one quarter of the way through this novel, Hal decides to go to Belize to look for T. - not because he cares about him (he doesn’t) or because he’s always wanted to go Belize, but because . . . he catches Susan cheating on him with her co-worker? Because his daughter is in a wheelchair and working as a phone sex operator? Because his life isn’t exactly what he thought it was? It’s unclear, to Hal and to the reader, and I mean this as praise: After all, do we ever run away for a good reason? And as Hal himself puts it: “It was running away. But he was not ashamed. He could not have cared less. It was what he wanted.’’
The reader should be glad that Hal wanted to go Belize to search for T., because some of this novel’s best writing is devoted to what he finds there. Breakfast, for instance: “Eggs arrived, with a slice of papaya to remind him of his location. Lest he mistake them for Hackensack eggs or eggs in Topeka, the papaya came along to announce they were tropical eggs, to remind him that congratulations! - he was on a tropical vacation.’’ Also, the Germans: “To make matters worse they seemed resolutely cheerful. They radiated something akin to joy. Such Germans were irritating. On the one hand they were an unpleasant reminder of Vikings and Nazis, on the other hand you envied them.’’
The reader - especially if the reader is also a fiction writer - feels about this book somewhat the way Hal feels about the Germans: It is easy to envy the ease with which Millet introduces the Germans, uses them in incredibly unlikely ways (the father immediately organizes a military search party for T.; the mother, who is beautiful, sleeps with Hal, who is not), doesn’t try even a little to make them less ridiculous (the parents are named Hans and Gretel, for crying out loud) and yet still makes us care about them. In part that’s so because the Germans care for Hal, who is worth caring about, even though he does things for mostly selfish reasons. And that’s part of this novel’s considerable charm: In not endeavoring to make Hal a more likable person than is necessary and plausible, Millet does what kindred authorial spirits Muriel Spark and Tom Drury did in books like “Aiding and Abetting’’ and “Black Brook’’: By being honest about her flawed protagonist, she forces the reader to accept the flaws as part of understanding what makes a complicated person worth understanding in the first place. That is, by making us see the flaws, Millet makes us see how flawed people compel our understanding and love. Take, for instance, this conversation between Casey, Hal’s daughter, and Hal after he confronts her about her up-until-now secret job talking dirty on the phone to strangers:
“ ‘I thought, you know, no one wants to think of their crippled kid doing phone porn for a living. Sordid. You know - do you really need the ideation? . . . ’ ’’
“ ‘The truth will set us free,’ ’’ her father declares.
“ ‘Speak for yourself,’ ’’ Casey replies.
“ ‘OK,’ ’’ Hal concludes, “ ‘the truth will set me free.’ ’’
What a startlingly honest conversation between two people who love each other! And in the spirit of that kind of honesty, let me admit that even though I followed the novel willingly and happily as it searched for T. through the wilds (natural and bureaucratic) of Belize, I was utterly mystified by its ending. I mean, I understood what happened in the novel’s last pages, but I cannot understand why Millet chose to end the novel the way she did. But then again, “Ghost Lights’’ is that kind of novel: It’s so good at making us appreciate the mysterious motivations of its characters that its readers don’t necessarily mind when its own motivations are also, occasionally, mysterious.Brock Clarke, the author most recently, of “Exley,’’ teaches at Bowdoin College. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.