REVIEW: Ghost Lights by Lydia Millet
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W.W. Norton & Co.
256 pp / $24.95
A question for the gentlemen — what would you do if your wife was cheating on you? Would you confront her, raising a domestic scene worthy of COPS? Or, would you keep quiet, letting the betrayal turn into a lifetime of passive aggression? If your name is Hal Lindley, and you’re the protagonist of Lydia Millet’s new novel Ghost Lights, your reaction would fall somewhere in between: a drunken offer to rescue your unfaithful partner’s obnoxious boss from a tropical jungle.
Let’s take a few steps back. Hal works for the IRS and has settled into a complacent suburban life with Susan, his ex-hippie of a wife. She works for Thomas Stern, or “T.” as he prefers to be called, who vanished during a trip to Belize. Since T.’s disappearance, things start to fall apart for Hal, particularly after he catches Susan sleeping with the young sexy paralegal at her office. Later, Hal gets a little too libation-happy at his daughter’s dinner party, and as the conversation moves to the subject of T., he blurts out that he will fly to Belize in search of the mercurial businessman.
So begins Millet’s seventh novel. Having been in the game for about 15 years now, Millet has received much praise for her dark comedies, and with Ghost Lights, she continues the tradition. Hers is a psychological humor, evinced through Hal’s petty yet plausible motivations. This is sort of what his thought process is like, in brief:
Why should I look for T.? I hate him, that such a new-age phony! Because Susan adores him! But I’m mad at her! True, but what better way to stick it to her than rescuing her hero?
If this sounds confusing or downright silly, then steer clear. If it strikes a chord, then you’ll find a fiendish glee in Ghost Lights.
The quirky premise is reminiscent of Vonnegut, particularly Cat’s Cradle, as well as Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Like Vonnegut, Millet is interested in absurdity set against an exotic locale, and like Conrad, Hal’s physical journey corresponds to an inner journey. If Marlow is Conrad’s Everyman, then Hal is something slightly less, a “surplus human,” as he calls himself. Similarly, if Kurtz is the Everyman gone insane, then T. is the Everyman gone a bit cuckoo, but with a less loquacious philosophy (how can he compete?). In the end, these are two guys suffering from quarter and mid-life crises; fortunately for us, they reacted radically.
But how far does Hal’s inner journey extend? Can he change amidst his new surroundings? From the moment he adopts T.’s three-legged dog to the moment he reaches his Kurtz deep in the jungle primeval, we are made a party to Hal’s every thought and opinion, which range from the quick quip to the querulous tirade. Millet forces us confront our feelings for Hal, whether we root for his growth or his undoing. Personally, as I felt the novel’s encroaching end, I wasn’t sure what I wanted for him. It made for a surprisingly tense last few chapters.
Other characters serve mostly as another “setting” on which we impute Hal’s mind. Casey, his daughter, is a paraplegic that humanizes him, an ironic amalgam of the deformed and the beautiful. Hans and Gretel, Germans he meets in Belize, are almost fabulistic symbols (Hansel and Gretel, anyone?) that force Hal to confront his mind’s tendency to form obdurate stereotypes. Though they are interesting in their own right, this is ultimately the Hal show. We understand him on a psychological level, something we don’t get from any other character. When it’s all said and done, Millet favors the inner to the physical journey. Other characters are but signposts.
The question is not whether Hal is likable or unlikable; the question is if he’s interesting. In a phrase, he’s not: dull job for “the man,” stale marriage, predictable life. But, is his being uninteresting, in fact, interesting? This will vary from reader to reader; some will find his witticisms witty, and some will find them obnoxious. You can love or hate Hal and still find this book intriguing.
From her character study, Millet touches on some pretty deep themes with Ghost Lights: rampant conformity, the inherent pain of child rearing, and the possibility of changing one’s worldview. Perhaps the most moving is escaping fate. Hal’s future in suburban California was set in the stars, and those stars were rather dim. At least in Belize the stars are unpredictable, showing themselves to be what they truly are — suns, universes, chaotic balls of change.
by Lydia Millet
— Stephen Spencer lives and works in Brooklyn, NY. He has an M.A. in English Literature from Brooklyn College and is currently teaching composition there. He writes creatively in his spare time.