three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
34-May-June-2008
By: 
Lydia Millet
user_rating: 
0

A-How the Dead DreamT., a smooth and successful Los Angeles real estate developer obsessed with money since childhood, is driving home after viewing a potential construction site when he hits and fatally wounds a coyote. As he stops and sits with the animal until it dies, his carefully constructed, impassive façade starts to fracture, and he experiences his first-ever spasms of compassion. When his girlfriend dies tragically, his father disappears, and his latest project decimates a colony of kangaroo rats in the Mojave Desert, T. copes with his grief and guilt by breaking into zoos and sleeping near endangered species, seeking solace in his newly discovered connection to the Earth as his life unravels.
Counterpoint. 256 pages. $24. ISBN: 1593761848

Chicago Sun-Times 4 of 5 Stars
"For the reader, T.’s adventures with animals carry more emotional impact than any of the human encounters. They prompt the serious, sometimes convoluted but always moving meditations that are the spine of this strange, lovely novel." Kit Reed

Kansas City Star 4 of 5 Stars
"With a master’s in environmental policy from Duke, Millet sees the natural world with clear-eyed urgency and the social landscape with wisecracking, dark humor. How the Dead Dream is an edgy telegram on behalf of nature and its singular beasts." Jeffrey Ann Goudie

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"T.’s evolution from capitalist to caretaker functions both as allegory and character study, and works if the reader lends T. his sympathies. … He’s rendered in such complex, fine detail—as carefully etched as one of the engravings he studies on the backs of dollar bills—that he comes alive, irresistibly sympathetic, both deadpan and deep." Carolyn Kellogg

San Diego Union-Tribune 3.5 of 5 Stars
"T. comes off as less than three-dimensional, perhaps because of the twin burdens of parable and parody on his character. … [Millet] writes marvelously, with a sense of hilarity, but also with a deep passion, especially apparent in her acknowledgments in which she dedicates the book [to extinct and rare species]." Wendy L. Smith

San Francisco Chronicle 3 of 5 Stars
"The brevity and opacity of [the character of T.’s girlfriend] don’t support the histrionic period of mourning that follows, which, along with T.’s strained relationship with his out-of-the-closet father and his mother’s descent into dementia, slow down the middle section of the novel considerably. … By presenting the facts of biological extinction in a bizarre and compelling fiction, the novel behaves more like the zoo animals T. visits: You may be interested in them, but they’re not necessarily interested in you." Andrew Leland

Seattle Times 2.5 of 5 Stars
"But for all of the acuity that impregnates this novel (the first in a projected trilogy), and for all of the ambition, one big problem remains. T. is as emotionally skeletal a character as his initial is a name." Barbara Lloyd McMichael

Washington Post 2 of 5 Stars
"Unfortunately, Millet clogs her moving story with a variety of distracting dead ends: T.’s father ‘goes’ gay; T. has an affair with a crippled woman; T.’s mother slips into dementia; T.’s only friend is a wealthy jerk of cartoon-like crassness. … Worse is Millet’s tendency toward abstraction and pretentiousness, which sometimes smothers her wit." Ron Charles

Critical Summary

Lydia Millet, a social novelist with a master’s degree in environmental policy, has carved a reputation for herself by exploring difficult topics in edgy, darkly humorous works of fiction. How the Dead Dream—part philosophical meditation, part fable, and part comic escapade—argues for the importance of environmental protection as it portrays T.’s metamorphosis from coldhearted capitalist into compassionate child of the Earth. Critics differed in their opinions of T.’s character: is he a finely-wrought, sympathetic protagonist or a one-dimensional cardboard cutout? A few critics also complained about the many side plots that slow the novel’s momentum and blur Millet’s message. However, T.’s internal struggles and quest for redemption stress humankind’s responsibilities and limitations as stewards of the environment—a timely message indeed.

Also by the Author

Oh Pure and Radiant Heart (2005): The creators of the atomic bomb—Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi, and Leo Szilard—are transported from the 1940s to 2003, where they come face to face with the effects of their invention. ( 4 of 5 Stars Nov/Dec 2005)