It's not surprising that when Lydia Millet's latest central character enters an unfamiliar house and feels around to turn on lights, she touches not a switch, but fur and a bulbous glass eye.
Nor that, when she can finally see into the space, she finds a hall festooned with deer heads. This book, after all, completes a trilogy that began with a guy who would break into zoos at night to sleep with the animals.
Millet has a thing about folks and fauna.
The central character here is obviously not T., the zoo-stealth-sleeper (a mega-capitalist turned enlightened wildlife philanthropist), but his secretary, Susan. A recently widowed adulterer and self-styled murderer, Susan has just inherited a Pasadena mansion, and she discovers it's chockablock with stuffed, dead animals.
Welcome to Millet World. A winner of the PEN USA Award for Fiction and a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize, the Tucsonan has worked for both Hustler magazine and the Center for Biological Diversity. And she knows her way around smart prose.
The novel opens with Susan musing on her affection for her husband and on the nature of men: Husbands, she thinks, are like deer-eyed, rice-field toilers. Her love for her husband is comfortable; it's somehow ... vegetarian. Men in general, she continues, are tragic figures. Infused with enough testosterone to haul down woolly beasts, they're tragically hobbled by modern life, and she pities them. Susan has these thoughts as she and her daughter Casey are driving to LAX to pick up her boss, T., who disappeared into the Belizean jungle, and her husband, Hal, who went and found him.
When the women reach the airport, they get the news: Hal was mugged and stabbed in Belize City; he's returning home in a coffin. Unstated but crucial to the situation is that T. was Hal's excuse to escape recent discoveries that his daughter was peddling phone sex, and his wife was sleeping with the assistant office manager. If Susan hadn't been caught fooling around, Hal would never have gone. If he hadn't gone, he'd still be alive. Susan, thus, secretly implicates herself in his death. Or—as she might say, since she begins to think of herself in the third person—"the murderer" implicates herself.
The book then follows Susan as she tries to get on with life in light of grief and guilt. She embarks on house renovation and animal research, and eventually establishes a household with a collection of elderly ladies and someone else's husband.
Magnificence is a natural denouement to the arc of How the Dead Dream and Ghost Lights, albeit not quite as rich or compelling. Millet returns to Southern California culture for this setting. Initially, it's standard traffic-clogged L.A. But Susan's new place creates an Eden-like retreat from the outside world. A classic 1920s structure, it has great halls and rows of bedrooms, pools and lush gardens. Those, and room after themed room of stuffed, mounted and sometimes posed wild animals bagged by Susan's great-uncle and his hunting club.
You would not call this an action-driven novel. There is some threat: a coarse cousin and his grasping son challenge the uncle's will. There's some off-stage romance: T. and wheelchair-bound Casey start being seen together. There's some onstage sex. There's the insinuation into Susan's Pasadena house of the aging ladies. And there's some mystery about a "legacy" in the house, left by the old man. They all feel strangely tangential, however.
At the core lies Millet's big theme—the tragic, criminal reduction in biodiversity worldwide; the extinction of whole animal and plant species; and the culpability of humankind in both. Alongside that, we have the story of a woman who's dealing with her own culpability.
Susan's character does undergo change, as does her attitude toward the specimens in her care. As she researches, she becomes aware of species loss, and recognizes issues related to acquisitions and collection, and misguided museum practice.
There are some character-development shortcuts in the book. But Millet's signature wit and intelligence still carry the novel. She's gifted at juxtaposition and dark comedy, and she's thoughtful: She has Susan riff on subjects as varied as the nature of pain, Chagall's art, morality and immorality, opera, pornography, evolution, parenting and aging.
The series has had a memorable run—wonderfully absurd; often moving and transcendent—and Millet has reminded us without preaching what we owe to the planet.