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.
Millet seems something of an unusual figure in American fiction, despite having been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for 2009’s “Love in Infant Monkeys,” a 2012 Guggenheim Fellow, and the subject of rave reviews in The New York Times. She lives in Arizona, where she works as a writer for the Center for Biological Diversity. Perhaps consequent to this distance from the major centers of American literary life, Millet has dared in her trilogy to be refreshingly and uncooly sincere: “Magnificence,” like 2008’s “How the Dead Dream” and 2011’s “Ghost Lights” before it, is warm, moving, funny, earnest, hopeful, honest, and engaged in a way at odds with current literary fashion.
Certainly, the situations portrayed — a real-estate tycoon with a habit of breaking into zoos, an IRS man going Conrad up a jungle stream, a woman inheriting a mansion from the old dead-uncle-ex-machina — would seem ripe for satire. But Millet, though she’s proved herself capable of po-mo irony in the past, is less interested in exploiting this narrative wackiness than in probing the existential questions within. Driving these characters toward hard-won self-awareness, Millet aims high and well beyond her plot: She wants to know whether it’s possible to live with death, to be endangered from the moment one is born. She’s asking whether there’s salvation to be found.
In “Magnificence,” as in the two previous novels, loss is the main driver of change. Millet’s characters lead lives improbably full of grief: T., in the “How The Dead Dream,” loses his girlfriend fast and his mother slow; Hal, in “Ghost Lights,” discovers his wife’s infidelity and struggles with his daughter’s paralysis.
“Magnificence” begins where “Ghosts Lights” ended, as Susan Lindley, T.’s secretary and Hal’s unfaithful wife, learns of her husband’s death at the hands of a mugger in Belize. Because it was her dalliance with a co-worker that had driven him there, Susan blames herself for Hal’s death, as though she were the predator and he her prey.
To cope she turns to sex, drink, cigarettes and selfishness, making “Magnificence” the only book in the trilogy in which the bereaved fails to flee into the jungle. Not literally, at least. The mansion Susan inherits in the midst of her mourning from a great-uncle she barely remembers is a jungle of a kind, packed to the gills with stuffed wild things. As Susan picks up and begins her new life, sorting and caring for this taxidermy collection, she ends up gathering other flawed creatures to her: a flock of old women, her daughter’s hard and cynical friends, an adulterous lawyer, acquisitive relations, a gardener named Ramon.
It’s rare that novels like these, which lead in a clean swoop from self-delusion to epiphany, avoid triggering reactionary cynicism. But Millet’s lush prose has you in her thrall from the start: “Let us lift off the bed, let our skins absorb the streams of particles, of blood, water, the electricity, the storms.” For sentences like these, you’ll allow her to be as earnest — as sentimental even — as she wants. Indeed sentiment, in her hands, feels cleansing.
This is partly because Millet’s narration is so densely internal that there’s a rightness even to its digressions, lapses into the saccharine, and occasional misplaced profundities. Millet is a deft stylist, and her observations take place so close to the personal as to unearth surprising truths in even the most over-scrutinized things, inviting quotation in the form of aphorism. On the love between husbands and wives, she writes: “It was the kind of love that gazed up at you from the bare white flood of your headlights — a wide-eyed love with the meekness of grass-eaters.”
Without the grass-eaters of course, this startling explanation could not take place, and part of Millet’s project is to expose what other creatures can help us understand about ourselves. Taxidermy, to which most of the animal presence in “Magnificence” is due, is a ready-made synecdoche for her exploration of extinction, preservation, and endangerment.
If, as Berger wrote, the zoo is a monument to the disappearance of animals from our culture, Susan’s moldering collection of skin on plastic bones is a facsimile of both this disappearance and the point at which our lives and fates still intersect. In this museum, the human is no longer human alone but one of the lost ones, those that, like the animals, are awaiting their time. Millet has built an ark in which loss brings a kind of preservation, a community among the gone.