switterbug (Betsey)'s Reviews > Ghost Lights

Ghost Lights by Lydia Millet
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Jun 27, 12

Read from June 18 to 27, 2012

This second book of Millet's trilogy, following the intrepid HOW THE DEAD DREAM, centers on middle-aged IRS bureaucrat, Hal Lindley, Susan's husband, both who were minor characters in the first book. Susan works for T., the protagonist of book one, the man who is missing in Belize, and presumed dead. You don't have to read the first book to engage with the second, but it adds more background and material on several of the characters (especially T.), and some more dimension and history on the story as a whole.

The only writer I can think of that reminds me of Millet is Paul Auster, with his postmodern, darkly comic and surreal novels of characters earnestly struggling, and yet with an absurd haplessness, too, to comprehend their lives. They suffer from disorienting delusions, so that their self-directed journeys are fevered with mortifications. Millet is somewhat quirkier, even, and without the assembled, careful structure of Auster. She is less antiseptic than Auster, with an undertone of gallows humor.

After Hal comes to the conclusion that Susan is having an affair with her preppy office paralegal, he decides to play the potential hero, offering to travel to Belize to find T. Stern, who has been missing since he went on a boat trip with a guide up the Monkey River. Several issues plague Hal, besides Susan's affair. First, he feels like he is responsible for forcing Susan to suppress her bohemian, free-love spirit that she possessed when they first met in the 60's (it is now 1994, dated by the death of Kurt Cobain).

Secondly, and more importantly, he is emotionally choked with guilt and pain about his daughter, Casey, who had an accident when she was 17 and is now a twenty-six-year-old paraplegic. Apparently, she once had an intimate affair with T., (if you read the first book, you get the full story), but she isn't sharing the details. T. was responsible for her new and improved outlook--her shedding of cynicism, self-enmity, and former scorn for all of existence. Now that Casey is engaged with life, she has taken on an acrimonious, mocking ex-cop paraplegic boyfriend, and an appalling telephone job that Hal found out about inadvertently.

Hal's feelings of profound loss over Casey, and his frequent interior dialogues about her "before" and "after" state, as well as the shock of his wife's infidelity, crushes him with an awareness of his own obsolescence. This keeps with the themes of extinction started in the first book. Although it is animal extinction that was How the Dead Dream's concern, there has always been a subtext of human dissolution and annihilation.

"...suddenly he was older and part of the architecture, its tangibility and the impulse behind it, its failings and strengths. The heavy installation had lost their majesty and seemed temporary, even shoddy, with a propensity for decline."

"He was a surplus human, a product of a swollen civilization. He was a widget among men."

Hal's adventures in Belize include breakfast:

"Eggs arrived, with a slice of papaya to remind him of his location. Lest he mistake them for Hackensack eggs or eggs in Topeka, the papaya cam along to announce they were tropical eggs, to remind him that congratulations!-he was on a tropical vacation."

Hal meets a German couple named Hans and Gretel (seriously!), (with twin blonde young "cornboys" obsessed with table tennis and video games), who are resolutely cheerful and beautiful to look at, and radiate a glowing bliss. "Such Germans were irritating. On the one hand they were an unpleasant reminder of Vikings and Nazis, on the other hand you envied them."

Hans, an avionics genius and specialist in something called tactical sensor networks, is well-connected to the military, and after hearing Hal's reason for coming to this island, organizes a search for T., with the U.S. armed forces, the Belize Defence Force Cadets, and NATO on board. Hal joins Hans and the muscle bound military men, and has his own Heart of Darkness trip through the jungle, as T. did in the first book.

This next quote, although not plot progressing, is an example of Millet's sly, dark wit as channeled by Hal's interior thoughts:

"Armed forces personnel were not as bad as cops, when it came to the aggregate probability of antisocial personality disorder...They were not homicidal so much as Freudian; they liked to feel the presence of a constant father. And their fringe benefits included fit and muscular bodies."

Millet's charismatic wit blends with her piercing, philosophical insights and compassion to portray a man on the brink of an existential crisis. What is especially endearing about Hal Lindley is his humanity as a parent, ripe and heartfelt with touching contradictions. The ending is surreal and mystifying, with a touch of the bizarre, a soul-searing finale that makes me impatient for book three. MAGNIFICENCE is scheduled for November release.
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Reading Progress

06/20/2012 "Status--interruptus. I just received the new Eggars book and dipped in and couldn't stop. Back to Millet later..."

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