There's a deep loneliness at the center of Lydia Millet's tenth novel, Sweet Lamb of Heaven -- and not just because its narrator, a mother named Anna, is on the run. No, this is existential, even cosmic loneliness. Anna, after all, hears voices, or she used to, until her daughter Lena began to speak. Here is how Anna describes the experience: "Later I would hear volumes and forget almost all of it, but the first phrase I picked out stayed with me despite my exhaustion. It started out as a string of foreign words, only one of which resolved, to my ear, onto anything recognizable -- something like "power," powa or poa. And then it was English: The living spring from the dead."
That last sentence might be read as a descriptor for much of Millet's fiction, which has long concerned itself with questions of mortality and extinction, and our relationship to not only the natural but also (let's call it) the elemental world. Elemental? Yes, although this comes with its own odd sort of metaphysical bent. It's no coincidence that powa, that initial word Anna recalls hearing, turns out to be "Phowa, or poa, meaning 'mindstream' in Sanskrit -- the transference of consciousness at the moment of death." And yet, to call this metaphysical in the most common sense is to underestimate what Millet has in mind. In Sweet Lamb of Heaven -- as in the stunning trilogy of novels (How the Dead Dream, Ghost Lights, Magnificence) she published between 2008 and 2012 -- her metaphysics are hard-edged, rooted in the physical, the practical: a way to investigate our connections to one another and to the generations that precede us, as well as to the natural world. That such connections are frayed is the whole point; this is the source of our existential risk. "[W]e were a blur of sympathy," Millet tells us, "the air between us pockets of space in one great body, one saltwater being, unplumbed depths where the ancestors came from, primeval well of genes . . . the feeling stretched like a generosity, the gift of oneness. Who cared about those differences we had, those minor distinctions that kept us apart?" Of course we do care quite a lot, which is the source of our dissatisfaction, our inability to see beyond ourselves, to understand that we are all together, one.
Such a conundrum is profound, and it animates Sweet Lamb of Heaven, as it has Millet's other work. To highlight this, perhaps, the novel develops in two threads: one about the voice and the other having to do with Anna's ex-husband, Ned, who is running for state senate in Alaska while stalking her and Lena, with the intention of using them as props in his campaign. "Ned's God," Millet explains, "was a life coach -- the kind for whom you have to be at least a mid-six-figure earner. Ned's God was a superstar, a braggart, and a motivational speaker, presiding from an office whose walls were lined with awards, diplomas, and framed pictures taken with celebrities. Ned's God would have to take an interest in the workings of his personal ego." Ned's God, in other words, is as empty as Ned himself, with his shiny teeth and right- wing platitudes: the emblem of a corrupted politics built on image and flash.
But something far more sinister than piety and politics are at work, as Anna recognizes. Ned, in some strange way, is attuned to his ex- wife, able to feel her, to sense her emotions, able to work his way inside her head. As Sweet Lamb of Heaven progresses, his manipulations grow increasingly outrageous, until Anna is left to question her sanity. "Maybe this is a ghost story after all," she wonders, and if she is thinking here about the voice and the transmigration of souls, the observation applies equally to her ex- husband, who will not leave her alone. Ghosts, Millet wants us to remember, can hurt us, and things beyond our conscious reckoning have the power to assert themselves.
For Anna (and, I think, for Millet too), this provokes a double vision, in which she longs for the connections she has lost while also fearing those she cannot shed. What is the source, or substance, of our truest selves: our ambition, as embodied by Ned, who grows increasingly controlling, or what Millet calls the "whole of being"? How do we truly know ourselves and one another in a world where "deep language" -- that is to say, the language of the spirit -- is being silenced by extinction and technology? "These years are our last chance," a friend tells Anna, referring to "the spirit and expression of all creatures and all people, their cultures and tongues and arts and musics, from the vaunted to the unknown." What Millet's describing is "ancient knowledge," language as identity and memory.
Anna's experience suggests that such a language has deserted us, that it is one we no longer hear. "Say God is a complex grammar," she conjectures, "that doesn't coexist with our own language, its ego-driven structures . . . Say we're left on our own . . . when we pronounce our first words and God deserts us, and it's in that respect that we're different from the other beasts and different from the aspen trees. Then it has to be said also that instead of being raised above the other kinds of life -- instead of being special as we have always claimed -- we're only more alone." More alone, yes, and also conscious of it, which is the source of Millet's troubling urgency.
David L. Ulin is the author, most recently, of Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles. A 2015 Guggenheim Fellow, he spent ten years as book editor and book critic of the Los Angeles Times.
Reviewer: David L. Ulin