Who is Hal Lindley? Even he doesn’t know. Mild-mannered taxman. Faithful, absent husband. Guilt-ridden father. What could he have done to prevent the accident that paralyzed his seventeen year old daughter, Casey, from the waist down? Nothing. And yet, since the accident, his life has folded in on itself, collapsed, narrowed. Hal does not wake one morning to find, like Gregor Samsa, the bureaucrat in Kafka’s famous novel, that he has the body of a cockroach, but his gradual ascent to the surface in Lydia Millet’s alarming novel, Ghost Lights, delivers the same feeling of disorientation.
Literature is hands down the sharpest tool in the shed for conveying this feeling of being lost in one’s own skin, one’s own life. Nervous breakdown, midlife crisis, amnesia: literature allows us to regard characters in the midst of these conditions from the inside and the outside. What was once familiar is now inaccessible, bizarre, even terrifying. Lydia Millet has prowled these corridors in all eight of her remarkable books, seven novels and a short story collection. Not only does she describe disorientation fully, she locates it squarely in modern American life as captured by David Byrne’s lyric: “This is not my beautiful house. This is not my beautiful wife.”
Hal Lindley’s first clue, his first breadcrumb, is his wife, Susan’s, affair with Robert the Paralegal. Robert and Susan work in a small Santa Monica office for Thomas Stern, T., the young multi-millionaire real estate mogul Millet’s readers met in her 2009 novel, How the Dead Dream. In that novel, we watched T. grow up, loving the look and feel of money from the age of six. T. builds a life, an isolated life, and Lydia Millet brings it down like a game of Jenga, revelation by revelation.
First he hits a coyote on the road to Vegas one night; a doorway opens into empathy for other living creatures and a fascination with disappearing species. Then his father ups and leaves T.’s saintly mother, ending their thirty-year marriage. Then his mother tries to commit suicide, and his girlfriend dies in a car accident. Then he meets and befriends Casey, the wheelchair-bound daughter of his office manager, Susan. Casey’s admission of love and desire for T. are the final blow to the life he has constructed. He leaves for Belize, a resort on an island he owns, and a trip upriver with a guide to find some jaguars.
T. may be a mogul, he may be a money-lover, he may drive a BMW, but he is still a likeable guy. Clueless, but likeable. Hal, number cruncher, unlikely hero in this sequel, is also clueless but likeable. Key blocks must be removed from his teetering tower-life as well before he realizes that he has lost control: his wife’s affair and the terrible realization that his outspoken paraplegic daughter makes a living performing phone sex. When T.’s disappearance is official at the start of Ghost Lights, Hal surprises everyone, especially himself, when he offers to go down to Belize to find the missing mogul.
Like William Randolph Hearst, J. Paul Getty, and Howard Hughes, T. has a bit of a screw loose. It’s a generational thing. “What if one day you woke up and you realized your whole life had been a dream like that,” T.’s father asks his son in How the Dead Dream, after several months missing and newly resurfaced as a gay man. “Your whole life, from some point where you fell asleep, was only a dream. The kind that tricks you into thinking you’re wide awake.”
Hal mulls over his own similar slide from presence to absence; from youth to routine-driven, bill-paying old age: “You did what you thought you had to; you went on eating, sleeping, raising your voice at intruders out of a sense of duty. But all the while you were hoping, faithfully but with no evidence, that it turned out, in the end, you were a prince among men.”
Six books back, in George Bush, Dark Prince of Love (2000), Millet dealt in messianic complexes, overblown egos, and hubris. She was a little more ruthless, a little more pointed about the delusion and destruction this machismo had wrought in modern American life. Perhaps with My Happy Life (2002), she reduced that hubris, like a master chef reducing ingredients into a delicate, complicated sauce, into pure loneliness, which became her central theme. In her short story collection, Love in Infant Monkeys, one of three finalists for the 2010 Pulitzer, vignettes about celebrities and other animals, hubris and loneliness were fused.
And so it is with Hal and with T. Hal’s mission in Belize to find T., who has been wandering Christ-like in a jungle-desert-dark-night-of-the-soul, earns him new respect from Susan and Casey. Unbeknownst to them, he has truly stumbled into his unlikely role as rescuer. Soon after his arrival in Belize he meets a beautiful German family, Hans and Gretel (yup!) and their two blond children (the cornboys — maniacally competitive little brats). Hans has NATO connections and brings in the Coast Guard to help Hal find T. Gretel, beatific, swims naked with Hal and seduces him. Millet’s treatment of this family is nothing short of hilarious: “On the one hand they were an unpleasant reminder of Vikings and Nazis, on the other hand you envied them.” Their solidity and perfection contrast sharply with Hal’s rudderless existence and with the lives of a neurotic couple from New York who really should have stayed home for their holiday.
Ghost Lights is a portrait of loneliness — and also a hero’s journey. When Hal finds T., unshaven, underfed, full of plans to give away all his money, happy as a clam, Hal recognizes something precious and worthy of protection. He understands the great disservice he has done to his wife and daughter, ebbing away, hiding, his fear contagious and crippling. He has become a ghost.
This is also a cautionary tale. Hal recognizes the privilege he has been given: “He would tell her,” he realizes thinking about his daughter. “It was you who gave me the reason for my life. Before you I was proud — proud and empty. I had no idea what it was like to beg the world for mercy and not be heard, never be heard at all. But still to go on begging, unheard. I knew nothing.” This revelation describes the arc of the novel and, I would say, of the subject matter in Lydia Millet’s body of work thus far. Before was ego, pride, a wasteland, a desert, a jungle. Then came struggle, loss, destruction, and toppling. Followed by endless compassion and potential.