The OF Blog: National Book Critics Circle Award finalist in Fiction: Lydia Millet, Magnificence

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

National Book Critics Circle Award finalist in Fiction: Lydia Millet, Magnificence

She condescended to the sexes of men, but it wasn't personal.  Clearly they also condescended to hers.  They had their own opinions about the sex of a woman, and those opinions were not all positive.  That much was obvious – from, say, pornography, which almost every man loved, from the purest young boy to the jaded defiler.  In other words small secrets were also held against her, and she did not need to know them.

Pornography, she thought.  Degradation and debasement.  A man liked to degrade a woman, in pornography.  It made perfect sense.  If she were male, she'd like it too.  Because a man might not know he was tragic, but he often suspected it.  On a subconscious level, a man suspected himself of pathos.  A man walked around bearing that half-aware, weary load; it was more stressful to suspect than to know for certain.  Women were oppressed from the outside, via the patriarchy – girls raped in various African cultures, for instance, then put to death for their trouble.  But men were oppressed from inside their own skin.  She saw it this way:  the testosterone was a constant barrage, not unlike an artillery shelling.  They had doubtless needed it, in, say, prehistory, to run around spearing meat, build up muscles that impressed the breeding-age females, etc., much as baboons made their loud wahoo calls or sported shocking pink anuses.

But now that the men were deprived of the endorphins of the chase and the butchering, the hormones were a call with no response, a ceaseless, useless siege upon the male psyche.  Naturally the men, held hostage in bunkers of flesh, sought refuge in pornography and violence.  It was just self-expression. (Ch. 1, pp. 10-11 e-book)

Out of the five finalists for this year's National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, Lydia Millet's Magnificence is perhaps the most difficult to review on its own merits.  As the concluding volume of a thematic and plot trilogy, it has a "beginning" that truly lies outside of its page.  Although Millet does make Magnificence into a story that does not depend upon its antecedents as much as most trilogy conclusions do, there is still the sense, particularly in the beginning stages when the novel's protagonist, Susah, thinks of T. (her boss, who was the main focus of the opening volume, How the Dead Dream), or of her now-dead husband, Hal, (the protagonist of the middle volume, Ghost Lights, as he goes to Central America in search of the now-disappeared T.) that there is a wealth of backstory that would inform Magnificence and make it an even stronger novel for those such as myself who read the volume without realizing at first that it was only but the last third of a larger trilogy.

Magnificence opens with Susan's reflections upon her often-frustrated sex life with her late husband and the many infidelities that she committed (including one into which Hal walked into just before he left for Central America in the second volume).  It is a powerful opening, perhaps the best writing in the novel, as Millet captures eloquently a middle-aged woman who alternates between her disdain for the strictures of patriarchal society (in particular, the double sexual standard when it comes to unfaithful spouses) and her vague regrets that life did not turn out differently for her.  Susan is, even for those readers like myself who have not read the previous readers, a fascinating and fully-fleshed character here, neither "good" nor "bad," but somewhere in-between.

Magnificence is at its best when Susan is the focus of the narrative.  As she learns about her paraplegic daughter's burgeoning career as a phone sex operator and as she struggles to deal with the sudden inheritance from an uncle of a large house in a tony section of Los Angeles, her puzzlement over the turns her life has taken adds layers of depth to what otherwise might appear to be a vapid, self-centered life.  It is this dissonance between the dissatisfied, curious woman who investigates the strange contents of her inheritance (including a mysterious basement that cannot be reached by normal means) and the detached participant in casual sex that provides interesting insights into one of the more fascinating characters that I've read in recent years:

When she told him, in the entryway of the house, he was mildly surprised.  Not floored even.  At this lackluster response a part of her was incredulous.  And then, as the moment expanded quietly between them, infuriated.  Apparently he was too insensitive to be shocked even by sudden death.  A human block of wood.  On the other hand, he was easy to shock with sex.  The news of Hal's death barely moved him, but when she indicated that they could proceed from the sound bite to having sex he was uncomfortable.  She relished his discomfort.  She led the dog into the backyard and closed the door behind it.

A dog was not sexy.  Also it was T.'s dog, which she and Hal had been taking care of after T. disappeared – practically a proxy for T. and thus also for Hal, for both of them conflated. (p. 24 e-book)

Susan's cool, almost clinical approach to intimate relationships is mirrored in one of the inherited house's strangest possessions:  a large collection of stuffed animals, a taxidermist's dream.  These stuffed animals represent on some levels the imposition of order upon a chaotic (ex-)life, a bestiary that in code might represent something deeper about Susan's life and of those around her.  This collection and the mystery of why it was begun and for what purchase consumes much of the second half of Magnificence.  There were times that allusions were made to events in the previous novel that passed over me, leaving behind only a vague sense that there was something more profound being stated there which I could not be privy to due to not having read the previous two volumes.  Yet this mystery did not detract from the novel, but instead made it somehow even more enticing for me.

The conclusion is superbly-executed.  The mystery of the closed-off basement is revealed in a somewhat spooky fashion, with a sense of faint horror mixed in with an introspective look at life, both in general and in Susan's specific case.  The musings that opened Magnificence are echoed in her reactions to what she discovers at the end:

Men slew each other, they slew the animals, went slaying and slaying.  Women were mostly witnesses.  They were not innocent – it wasn't that simple, not by a long shot – more like accessories to the crime, if not the principal offenders.  They saw killing ravage all things beneath the sun and were the silent partner in it.  You didn't want to kill, you had no interest in killing – your very genes went against it.  Possibly your hormones.  Again, the molecules that governed you.  But you were also far too weak to stop it.  Your weakness was your crime.

Not weaker than men, per se, just differently weak.  The wanting to be liked, avoidance of were profoundly and eternally guilty of this terrible weakness, this moral as well as physical weakness, the fear of being hurt, of being injured, of being embarrassed.  You were crippled by the guilt of being who you were.  Guilty of being yourself. (Ch. 10, pp. 189-190 e-book) 

By novel's end, there is a sense of subtle illumination, of Susan discovering answers to questions that she only half-dared to ask herself throughout the narrative.  The numinous appears to be half-revealed, or at least enough for Susan to recast her life and her desires and regrets in a new light.  Capturing this sense of (partial) enlightenment is very difficult to do in fiction without appearing to be hokey or trite, yet here in Magnificence Millet manages to achieve this difficult feat.  Magnificence, indeed.  One of the best novels on this excellent National Book Critics Circle Award shortlist.


Liviu said...

I've just read the middle book Ghost Lights and while it was readable and well written as prose goes, I found it meh as a novel; basically a book about nothing who I had more or less forgot the moment I finished it

That in contrast with a few extremely powerful literary novels and stories I've read recently, The Twin by G. Bakker, On the Edge by Markus Werner and Beautiful Indifference (collection) by Sarah Hall which all left quite an impression - especially On the Edge and 2 stories in the S. Hall collection which I already read 2-3 times each and I see myself re-reading a few more times...

Could be my finding American literature generally meh as compared to European one (Dutch, Swiss and UK respectively here) true, but I think there is such a gulf between the nothing of Lydia Millet and the books mentioned to be more than my sensibilities...

Juan Manuel Pazos said...

Dear Larry: it's always a good thing that a review contains a few quotations. From the quotations here I can say I probably won't like this book. The kind of generalization in sentences beginning with "women...." or "men...." is quite uncomfortable to me. If you then throw genes and hormones in the mix, well, most assuredly not my cup of tea. And then the style doesn't seem to be that attractive either. So one book LESS to care about.

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