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How the Dead Dream

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As a wealthy, young real-estate developer in Los Angeles, T. lives an isolated life. He has always kept his distance from people — from his doting mother to his crass fraternity brothers — but remains unaware of his loneliness until one night, while driving to Las Vegas, he hits a coyote on the highway.

The experience unnerves him and inspires a transformation that leads T. to question his business pursuits for the first time in his life, to take a chance at falling in love, and...

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As a wealthy, young real-estate developer in Los Angeles, T. lives an isolated life. He has always kept his distance from people — from his doting mother to his crass fraternity brothers — but remains unaware of his loneliness until one night, while driving to Las Vegas, he hits a coyote on the highway.

The experience unnerves him and inspires a transformation that leads T. to question his business pursuits for the first time in his life, to take a chance at falling in love, and finally to begin breaking into zoos across the country, where he finds solace in the presence of animals on the brink of extinction.

A beautiful, heart-wrenching tale, How the Dead Dream is also a riveting commentary on inidividualism and community in the modern social landscape and how the lives of people and animals are deeply entwined. Judged by many — including the Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post Book World — to be Millet's best work to date, it is, as Time Out New York perfectly states: "This beautiful writer's most ambitious novel yet, a captivating balancing act between full-bodied satire and bighearted insight."

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Editorial Reviews

Adelle Waldman
…on the whole How the Dead Dream succeeds, in large part because of Millet's intelligence and storytelling grace. But it's also a function of a talent that was less central to her comic works but that Millet clearly possesses in abundance: a moral eye as sensitive to nuances of character as it is to social causes.
—The New York Times
Ron Charles
[Millet's] best when she makes startlingly odd events seem wholly real. The final act takes T. deep into the jungle for a conclusion that's both terrifying and moving. Yes, there's an argument for environmental protection here, but what's more profound is Millet's understanding of the loneliness and alienation in a world being poisoned to death.
—The Washington Post
Library Journal

T. has always accumulated wealth. As a child, it was through paper routes and bogus charity drives; as a college student, it was through stock-market investments; and as an adult, it is by buying land and developing planned communities. He has never let anyone close enough to derail him from his commitment to accumulate. But the vagaries of love unhinge him: his mother's mental degeneration and subsequent indifference to him, the feelings he has for a dog he rescues from the pound, the love-at-first-sight experience with a woman he meets at a party, and the grief at her sudden loss-all these things affect T. in a powerful and bizarre way. He becomes obsessed with endangered species and routinely breaks into zoos at night to sleep in wolves' and elephants' paddocks. Award-winning author Millet's (Oh Pure and Radiant Heart) story culminates with T. tracking an endangered jaguar and coming face to face with the essence of his own being. With wry, brilliant dialog and insightful existential musings, Millet delves deep into the meaning of humanity's destructive connection to nature and the consequences of the extinction of both animals and love. Absorbing and not to be missed; highly recommended.
—Joy Humphrey

Kirkus Reviews
A story of extinction from Millet (Oh Pure and Radiant Heart, 2005, etc.). As a boy T. collects donations for charities that don't exist and serves as middleman for schoolyard protection rackets. In college he joins a fraternity not for community but for connections, and he remains apart from the debauchery. His brothers mock his monastic tendencies, but they appreciate his clear head and powers of persuasion when, say, frat-party rape victims need to be talked out of pressing charges. As an adult T. is a real estate speculator. He has fulfilled the promise of his youth, which is to say he has achieved the apotheosis of human greed and narcissism. Events conspire, however, to disturb his cool self-interest. His father leaves his mother. His mother descends into dementia. And he hits a coyote with his very expensive car, killing it. T. becomes his mother's caretaker. He tries to communicate with his father. He adopts a dog. He falls in love with a girl named Beth. Transformed by these connections, T. becomes passably human, but he is undone once again by Beth's sudden death. T. sinks into an abyss of loneliness-which deepens as his mother ceases to recognize him-and his experience makes him aware of the loneliness of animals on the brink of extinction. He becomes, if not an activist exactly, then a self-sacrificing witness to these last creatures. Millet's latest doesn't work as a novel-it's exhausting and disappointing. The author seldom deviates from the expository voice, and her characters exist only in outline. She does, however, offer an interesting disputation on the meaning of life, one that posits love as the only useful response to isolation, even as it acknowledges that loss isthe inevitable result of communion. A hymn to love and an elegy for lost species, but not much of a novel.
The Barnes & Noble Review
The lives of the wealthy and powerful, as described by biographers, are more often than not confined to great deeds and equally great follies. Autobiographical accounts from this world exhort ordinary people to emulate their characteristics and replicate their successes. Meanwhile, novelists, generally a left-leaning bunch, tend to view the workings of power with suspicion, if not outright scorn, and thus fictional portraits of the ?ber-capitalists among us are frequently limited to villainous caricature.

Those who wish to contemplate what makes such men tick are much indebted then, to Lydia Millet, an unabashedly political writer who has developed a curiosity about the inner lives of powerful men that feels fresh and nearly subversive. Her sixth novel, How the Dead Dream, follows a young real estate developer who replaces his lifelong love of money with an equally gripping obsession with endangered animals.

If that plot summary seems like a high-wire act, consider that Millet's last novel, Oh Pure and Radiant Heart (2005), was based on the premise that three nuclear physicists instrumental in developing the atom bomb -- Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi, and Leo Szilard -- are somehow transported to the Santa Fe desert in 2003, befriend a librarian and her husband, see the carnage their genius has wrought, and go on a road trip preaching the virtues of nuclear disarmament. That novel should not have worked, but it was frankly bedazzling in execution and ended up on many year-end best-of lists (including my own). (Millet's other two novels featuring difficult American men include George Bush, Dark Prince of Love, an ode to President Bush Senior written in the voice of a trailer-park stalker, and Everyone's Pretty, about an alcoholic pornographer, inspired in part by Millet's stint as a copy editor for Larry Flynt publications).

While the physicists' love of pure science blinded them to the ends to which their invention would be used, T., the protagonist of Dead, exhibits a visceral love of money in all its forms. As a child, his reverence for the coin of the realm is so great that often, he stores a few in his cheeks for safekeeping (a filthy habit, according to his mother). He ascribes personality traits to the faces of dead presidents on depicted on bills ("Hamilton had a homosexual way about him that lent an air of refinement to the twenty dollar bill" while "Jackson was a more primitive version of the American statesman, a rudimentary model waiting to be superseded by gayer men with cleaner fingernails"). And he judges his classmates on the degree to which they resemble the American forefathers immortalized in cash:

None came close, he lamented; still he saw a trace of Hamilton's light eyes in the face of Becky Spivak and his well-turned mouth on Gina Grosz, a victim of rosacea... If he could detect an edge of arrogant pride in a skinny girl at a swim meet, say, jiggling a bare foot in the bleachers as she stared coolly at the other swimmers, he was pleased; he was reminded of the potential for all shackled beasts to break form their bonds and rise, their wings beating, into the stratosphere. He clung to a vision of forward motion, the breath of hope that could lift individuals into posterity. He told himself everyday of this latent capacity for eminence among humans, to the untrained eye so often hard to see. Rise my sister! Rise my brother! Soar.
Few of T.'s acquaintances, however, would see evidence that he has great hopes for the future of humankind. As a child, he extorts money from friends in exchange for favors and runs a bustling black market in forbidden commodities such as tampons, brassieres, and naked pictures of a friend's sister. He collects hundreds of dollars, ostensibly to benefit cancer societies, African orphans, and the like and rationalizes his actions with the guile of a politician three times his age: Given that he always donates at least a percentage of the proceeds to the actual cause, he reasons, his transactions have "a positive net effect"; when asked by his mother if the money really went to feed hungry children, T., answers quite honestly, "All the funds went to children. Yes. They did."

By the time T. enrolls in college at a small town in North Carolina (which closely resembles Duke, where Millet earned a master's degree in environmental policy), "he had learned to like abstract money better than its physical body." Still, his love of money in its pure state seems to set him apart from his fraternity brothers whose air of privilege makes T. consider them "children with handicaps" caused by "ease, abundance, overstimulation." Millet provides a particularly adept description of the giddy freedom T. feels upon graduation, with childhood behind him and a future of pure potential ahead: "Step forward, he told himself, step, step, daily into the night, nightly into the day. The unknown shimmers. There was paradise still to come." Soon after, he sets off to start his new life as a real estate developer in California; as he drives, "he felt a legion of tycoons riding shotgun."

Alas, T.'s euphoria is short-lived. When his Catholic mother is ditched by his feckless father and seeks shelter with him, he is drawn back into the messy realm of human entanglements. On the plus side, he meets a gorgeous woman, Beth, an ideal partner for a future captain of industry with "a capacity for appropriateness wherever she went" who makes everything "acceptable." (In true Millet fashion, rather than being the requisite blue-blooded Wasp, T.'s ideal mate has "erect posture, effortless dignity and perfect light brown skin"; while a former frat brother asks Beth, "So are you like Asian or black or something?" Millet leaves her ethnicity an open question). But Mom gets drunk, picks up gentlemen companions and a smoking habit, and flirts with suicidal behavior. And Beth, tragically, is removed from the scene.

Left with few companions outside his beloved dog and creepy capitalists (including the weasel Fulton, the kind of guy who cheats on his wife, makes racist quips while blaring gangsta rap, and brags that his great-grandfather was a rapist and therefore a "superhetero"), T. sides with the animals. He develops an obsession with endangered species and sees extinction as a creeping cancer, "the grey that metastasized over continents." The man who idealized presidents as a little boy now sees Teddy Roosevelt instead as merely a laundry list of his hunting quarry: "Five hundred and twelve animals shot, including seventeen lions, eleven elephants, twenty rhinos, nine giraffes, forty-seven gazelles, eight hippos and twenty-nine zebras."

T., the eco-warrior, unlike T., the capitalist with a begrudging love for humanity, has less cognitive dissonance between his ideals and his actions. As such, the last third of the book is animated with less frisson than the first parts. For that reason, those unfamiliar with Millet's work might be advised to start with Oh, Pure and Radiant Heart to get a sense of just how astonishing she is at her best. But even if she has not topped herself in this novel, her passion, inventiveness, and sheer turns of phrase make it a book well worth savoring. --Amy Benfer

Amy Benfer has worked as an editor and staff writer at Salon, Legal Affairs, and Paper magazine. Her reviews and features on books have appeared in Salon, the San Francisco Chronicle Book Review, The Believer, Kirkus, and The New York Times Book Review.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780156035460
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing
  • Publication date: 9/15/2009
  • Series: How the Dead Dream Series , #1
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 838,473
  • Product dimensions: 5.20 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Lydia Millet

LYDIA MILLET is the author of several previous novels, including Everyone's Pretty and My Happy Life, which won the 2003 PEN Center USA Award for Fiction. She lives in the desert outside Tucson, Arizona.

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