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Ghost Lights

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Overview

Hal is a mild-mannered IRS bureaucrat who suspects that his wife is cheating with her younger, more virile coworker. At a drunken dinner party, Hal volunteers to fly to Belize in search of Susan's employer, T.—the protagonist of Lydia Millet's much-lauded novel How the Dead Dream—who has vanished in a tropical jungle, initiating a darkly humorous descent into strange and unpredictable terrain.

Salon raved that Millet's "writing is always flawlessly beautiful, reaching for an ...

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Ghost Lights

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Overview

Hal is a mild-mannered IRS bureaucrat who suspects that his wife is cheating with her younger, more virile coworker. At a drunken dinner party, Hal volunteers to fly to Belize in search of Susan's employer, T.—the protagonist of Lydia Millet's much-lauded novel How the Dead Dream—who has vanished in a tropical jungle, initiating a darkly humorous descent into strange and unpredictable terrain.

Salon raved that Millet's "writing is always flawlessly beautiful, reaching for an experience that precedes language itself." In Ghost Lights, she combines her characteristic wit and a sharp eye for the weirdness that governs human (and nonhuman) interactions. With the scathing satire and tender honesty of Sam Lipsyte and a dark, quirky, absurdist style reminiscent of Joy Williams, Millet has created a comic, startling, and surprisingly philosophical story about idealism and disillusionment, home and not home, and the singular, heartbreaking devotion of parenthood.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
By his own account, Hal has “become a typical domestic drone, a man wrapped up in the details of his own life and only his own.” His IRS job seems redundant, underscoring that Hal is a drab, routine, sad man. His adult daughter is in a wheelchair, and Hal mourns her mobility often. His wife is having an affair, a development that feels unnecessarily exaggerated, as if a stale, mid-life marriage in the wake of their daughter’s accident wouldn’t have been fodder enough for self-reflection. In an attempt to rattle the circumstances of his existence, Hal volunteers to track down his wife’s missing boss (T., of Millet’s earlier novel How the Dead Dream), last seen in the jungles of Belize. Most of the book recounts Hal’s interior thoughts in prose that lacks the lyricism and beauty Millet is known for. When recalling a gorgeous German woman Hal flirted with at a hotel, we’re told, “He liked Gretel. She was nice.” As the clues of the disappearance emerge, suspense builds, but Hal never breaks through his emotional distance. Though this passiveness might be at the root of his awkward, battered character, the result keeps the reader at a distance as well. (Oct.)
Salon.com
In Lydia Millet's brilliant new novel, a skeptical tax man follows a runaway millionaire to Latin America.

Can it be a coincidence that this year — when the issue of taxes has become an abyss that both divides and conquers our national government — we also have two new books about IRS workers by important novelists of ideas? The first, of course, is David Foster Wallace’s posthumously published The Pale King.... The second is Lydia Millet’s new novel, Ghost Lights....

...Millet is seldom compared to J.M Coetzee, who seems an obvious and fruitful influence on...Ghost Lights.... Their prose has a similar, lovely stillness, and both portray characters nudged beyond typical human navel-gazing....— Laura Miller

Cleveland Plain Dealer
Millet is that rare writer of ideas who can turn a ruminative passage into something deeply personal. She can also be wickedly funny, most often at the expense of the unexamined life.— Tricia Springstubb
San Francisco Chronicle
...surreal, darkly hilarious and profound… With its linguistic and plot pranks and underlying moral complexity, Ghost Lights recalls the laconic, Lacanian novels of Paul Auster. Like Auster, Millet presents a disoriented postmodern hero who becomes a willing but only marginally competent detective in a mystery that requires a series of absurd divagations leading to a life-changing or life-threatening existential inquiry.— Carolyn Cooke
Martha Steward Whole Living
“[A] whip-smart, funny novel…. A yarn about marriage, fatherhood, and idealism, its every page idiosyncratically entertaining, amusing, and insightful. Millet proves she might have Jonathan Franzen beat at expertly mixing the political and domestic.”
New York Times Book Review
At her best [Millet] exhibits the sweep and Pop-Art lyricism of Don DeLillo, the satiric acerbity of Kurt Vonnegut, the everyday-cum-surrealism harmonics of Haruki Murakami, and the muted-moral outrage of Joy Williams… Strange, alternately quirky, and profound… Millet is operating at a high level in Ghost Lights, and the book provides a fascinating glimpse of what can happen if the self’s rhythms and certainties are shaken. We should be grateful that such an interesting writer has turned her attention to this rich, terrifying subject.— Josh Emmons
Bookforum
[Lydia Millet] takes aim at the metaphysical jugular...her gorgeous narration...exists in some extraordinary place, at once discursive, editorial, and ruminative…. If literature can under the best circumstances transport, then Millet's extraordinary vision brings us in on the float.— Minna Proctor
Minna Proctor - Bookforum
“[Lydia Millet] takes aim at the metaphysical jugular...her gorgeous narration...exists in some extraordinary place, at once discursive, editorial, and ruminative…. If literature can under the best circumstances transport, then Millet's extraordinary vision brings us in on the float.”
Laura Miller - Salon.com
“In Lydia Millet's brilliant new novel, a skeptical tax man follows a runaway millionaire to Latin America.
Can it be a coincidence that this year — when the issue of taxes has become an abyss that both divides and conquers our national government — we also have two new books about IRS workers by important novelists of ideas? The first, of course, is David Foster Wallace’s posthumously published The Pale King.... The second is Lydia Millet’s new novel, Ghost Lights....
...Millet is seldom compared to J.M Coetzee, who seems an obvious and fruitful influence on...Ghost Lights.... Their prose has a similar, lovely stillness, and both portray characters nudged beyond typical human navel-gazing....”
Library Journal
Hal, a mild-mannered IRS agent, goes to Belize ostensibly in search of his wife's missing employer, a real estate developer who's also the protagonist of Millet's How the Dead Dream. In reality, this out-of-character mission is Hal's excuse to escape perceived betrayals by his wife and daughter. Almost in spite of himself, he enlists the help of a vacationing German couple, as he grows to understand his own responsibility for his family relationships and his place in the world. Like John Updike's Rabbit, Hal finds his odyssey taking unexpected twists and turns, as his wry and somewhat detached narrative voice makes astute observations about marriage, parenthood, and the state of the world. VERDICT Millet, a Pulitzer Prize finalist for the recent Love in Infant Monkeys, skillfully interweaves the personal and the political, making Hal's journey both specific and universal, even when you're never sure where the story is going next. Recommended. [See Prepub Alert, 4/11/11.]—Christine DeZelar-Tiedman, Univ. of Minnesota Lib., Minneapolis
Kirkus Reviews
Millet's latest opens with T (How the Dead Dream, 2009, etc.) gone missing on the Monkey River.

Thomas Stern, who prefers to be called T, was in Belize on business. Now he's been out of touch for weeks. Susan, dedicated assistant to the young mogul, is worried, as is Casey, her paraplegic daughter. Hal Lindley, husband and father, cares little. Hal thinks mostly about Casey's happiness, at least when he isn't plagued by angst over the accident that paralyzed her. Drifting and remote, Hal considers himself as "comfortable in the background." He's soon launched out of his ennui when he discovers shaky evidence Susan is having an affair with Robert, her office's paralegal. As Hal fumbles for proof, Susan decides to hire an investigator to find T. Hal volunteers, suggesting his profession as an IRS agent provides the experience to trace a person's whereabouts. Susan is shocked and confused. Casey, platonically devoted to T, thinks her father heroic. In Belize, Hal languishes, missing the "the security of known formulations and structures." Fleeing the circumstances of his cuckolding, Hal isn't especially eager to find T. Then he meets a vacationing German couple, Hans and Gretel, who push him into action. Hans, in fact, has military contacts and uses them to arrange a Coast Guard search party. Millet is a gifted writer, often dropping droll and sardonic throw-away lines of surprisingly insightful humor. The narrative moves smartly, and the dialogue is believable, as is Hal's existential internal monologue. Flailing about attempting to find T, Hal becomes a sympathetic protagonist. While Susan is not deeply imagined, Millet's narrative of Hal breaking free of an emotional cage is strikingly well done. Millet also deserves recognition for her perceptive treatment of Casey's disability and how it resonates in the family and in the world.

Literary fiction with a deep vein of wry social commentary.

Josh Emmons
If done well, diagnosing the misspent life can be revelatory and heartbreaking, and give ballast to otherwise ordinary stories…If done poorly, however, it can be heavy-handed and manipulative…The good news is that Ghost Lights belongs to the revelatory-heartbreaking camp. It powerfully examines how self-­acceptance and self-castigation coexist in the same person, and how easily one attitude can displace the other…Millet is operating at a high level in Ghost Lights, and the book provides a fascinating glimpse of what can happen when the self's rhythms and certainties are shaken. We should be grateful that such an interesting writer has turned her attention to this rich, terrifying subject…
—The New York Times Book Review
Tricia Springstubb - Cleveland Plain Dealer
“Millet is that rare writer of ideas who can turn a ruminative passage into something deeply personal. She can also be wickedly funny, most often at the expense of the unexamined life.”
Carolyn Cooke - San Francisco Chronicle
“...surreal, darkly hilarious and profound… With its linguistic and plot pranks and underlying moral complexity, Ghost Lights recalls the laconic, Lacanian novels of Paul Auster. Like Auster, Millet presents a disoriented postmodern hero who becomes a willing but only marginally competent detective in a mystery that requires a series of absurd divagations leading to a life-changing or life-threatening existential inquiry.”
Josh Emmons - New York Times Book Review
“At her best [Millet] exhibits the sweep and Pop-Art lyricism of Don DeLillo, the satiric acerbity of Kurt Vonnegut, the everyday-cum-surrealism harmonics of Haruki Murakami, and the muted-moral outrage of Joy Williams… Strange, alternately quirky, and profound… Millet is operating at a high level in Ghost Lights, and the book provides a fascinating glimpse of what can happen if the self’s rhythms and certainties are shaken. We should be grateful that such an interesting writer has turned her attention to this rich, terrifying subject.”
Vanity Fair
“Richly imagined.”
Martha Stewart Whole Living
“[A] whip-smart, funny novel…. A yarn about marriage, fatherhood, and idealism, its every page idiosyncratically entertaining, amusing, and insightful. Millet proves she might have Jonathan Franzen beat at expertly mixing the political and domestic.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393081718
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 10/24/2011
  • Series: How the Dead Dream Series , #2
  • Pages: 256
  • Product dimensions: 5.80 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Lydia Millet

Lydia Millet was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for her short story collection Love in Infant Monkeys and is the winner of the PEN USA Award for Fiction. She lives with her family in Tucson, Arizona.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 4, 2012

    Slow reading

    Although the book received good reviews, I did not enjoy it as much as most folks. I found it to be long and drawn out, didn't make a whole lot of sense to me, but maybe I missed something.

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 19, 2013

    very moving!

    This book being the second in a series, I thought Millet did a great job bringing T back from How The Dead Dream and bringing characters from that first book to the front in this one. I love her writing style. Great novel!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 4, 2012

    Pulitzer, please

    When asked about her close brush with the Pulitzer Prize at the Tucson Festival of Books, Lydia Millet was ironic and self-effacing. This is only the second Lydia Millet book I've read, but please, people, give this lady a prize! In Ghost Lights, the reader enjoys the inexorable pull of the writing through the richest and most banal details of a life that takes on a much greater meaning than itself by the bittersweet end. This part two follows the husband of a woman who worked for T., the long-suffering protagonist of How The Dead Dream, as he goes to Belize without much hope of recovering T.'s body. The plot twists and surprises are almost as enjoyable as the je ne sais quoi of the writing. How does Millet manage to capture the... whatever it is she captures? At the Book Festival, I learned that there is a third book planned that follows these characters, and I will be sure to pick it up right away.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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