Lost in a mansion of the mind
Late in her new novel, describing the pronouncements of a woman with early dementia, Lydia Millet writes, “With Angela what was familiar frequently became strange, the near withdrew into the far distance and then came close again.” You could say the same of Millet herself. She’s interested in the molecular and the global, and in the mundane middle distance only as seen from a perspective that makes it wild and terrifying or glorious and unreal.
Magnificence—about a woman who inherits a mansion filled with taxidermy—is the third in a trilogy, though you don’t need to have read the others to enjoy it. In all three books, Millet forces you instantly and fully into the mind of someone you might not ordinarily like at all: a money-obsessed developer (T., in How the Dead Dream), an IRS man (Hal in Ghost Lights), and here, Hal’s adulterous wife and T.’s employee, Susan. But Millet does like them; she takes an interest, so you do, too. Turns out, up close, they’re not at all what you thought. They are the familiar made strange.
Susan, for example, probably looks from afar like any aging wife. But she is seriously cracked. Of course, she’s cracked in that particularly off-kilter, calm, sardonic Millet way. She’s the type who slides the word “technically” (also the word “pederasty”) into a description of the weather at a funeral. Her husband’s funeral. She can have a breakdown and ironic insights simultaneously, seamlessly. She is at least as funny as she is haunted.
Like its predecessors, though, the novel has weight as well as hilarity. One of Millet’s obsessions is how massive we are, as a species; globally, we take up so much room. We steamroller the earth, not noticing until it’s too late the rarity of everything we’ve trampled. The centerpiece of this book, Susan’s inherited house, becomes a museum of lost and trampled things. When she finds it, she is lost herself, and it’s almost too perfect for her to believe: “The universe showed off its symbolic perfection; the atoms bragged.” Gradually the house fills with other lost souls, lost minds, lost loves. And up close, or from very far away, they start to seem less lost than found.