In his essay “Why Look At Animals?” John Berger mourns the lost reciprocity of human-animal exchange. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, he writes, animals were not just meat, leather, and horn, but “with man at the centre of his world.” As animate metaphors, they could explain the mysterious. As distant relatives, they represented where we had come from and where we would return at life’s end. As separate from us, they were a way for our world to look back.
“Magnificence,” the final installment in Lydia Millet’s interconnected sequence of novels, teems with turn-of-the-century emissaries from this vanishing natural world. The glass eyes of Millet’s bestiary aren’t able to return a look — they are long dead, lost, extinct — yet Millet negotiates a reunion of sorts regardless. In the turmoil of one woman’s middle age, these lost ones become a way of discovering what can be and should be saved in a world where all life, and all hope, is endangered.