Well into this new novel by Lydia Millet, the central character, cuckolded bureaucrat Hal Lindley, muses about his recently discovered marriage issues: "His marriage had been, in his mind, a pure union. And now it was adulterated."
"That," he continues, "is what adultery does."
And that, dear reader, is what Lydia Millet does: She brings the earnest to the foreground, and then pricks it with whimsy.
Ghost Lights is Tucsonan Millet's seventh novel. A winner of the PEN Center USA award for fiction, and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for Love in Infant Monkeys, she also has the distinction of having worked for both Hustler magazine and the Center for Biological Diversity. Smart, serious, ironic and sassy, she knows her way around literary fiction. And she shows it in this new work.
Ghost Lights is the second in a planned trilogy that opened in 2008 with How the Dead Dream, at the end of which über-capitalist T. went missing in Belize. To follow T., Millet has created a sort of postmodern Everyman, a guy who floats through the text with strands of disparate allusions trailing him—T.S. Eliot, Joseph Conrad, Children of the Corn, maybe the Beatles ("Taxman"?), 2001: A Space Odyssey (Who knows? His name's Hal ...) and Hansel and Gretel. Oh, and yeah, Jesus Christ.
The novel opens with Southern Californian Hal and his wife, Susan, picking up the long-kenneled dog of Susan's employer T. (Thomas Sterns). Hal is not a dog-lover, but he agrees to take the dog in, in part because their wheelchair-bound daughter is fond of it.
Back at work as an Internal Revenue Service supervisor, Hal finds an excuse to leave and visit his daughter Casey at lunch. After interrupting Casey at what she calls her telemarketing job, Hal leaves her apartment. Then, drifting into his habitual thoughts about the accident that crippled her, he crashes his car. When he goes home, he runs into the young paralegal from Susan's office just leaving his house. Inside, he finds the bed unmade and Susan emerging from the shower looking "radiant."
It takes a while for Hal to make the connection, but discovering his wife's affair with the paralegal sets him back. It takes him less time to figure out that it's another kind of phone job entirely that his daughter does. The notion of his baby girl peddling phone sex also sets him back. So that night at dinner, fueled by alcohol, normally abstemious Hal announces that he is going to Belize to track down T.
It's not in Hal's nature to be a hero. He just needs a change of venue.
And so Hal wanders into his particular Heart of Darkness, the route to which is splashed with even more alcohol, "second-order adultery," covert U.S. operations, collapsing coral reefs and abundant philosophizing absent-mindedness.
Modest, fragile Belize is a natural location for Millet to play out her concerns about environmental degradation and the corrupting effects of capitalism. In How the Dead Dream, T. went to Belize to colonize Caribbean beaches with hotels. It's in the uncolonized jungle where he's been lost, though, and that's where Hal will need to search for him.
Millet builds her character through the agency of others and his own escapes into thought. Not fond of T., Hal demonstrates little initiative in searching for him. When he arrives at the resort where T. last stayed, he settles down to think about not thinking. "Thinking alone," he observes, didn't save Casey from her accident and won't solve his marriage problems. And then he decides that "he should let ... time mold him; time would go by, and he would see what to do."
It's the impetus of a man-of-action type—a German "avionics consultant" to the U.S—that catalyzes Hal into following T.'s trail. It's the German's perfect-specimen wife who catalyzes Hal into a tryst on the beach. And it isn't even Hal who actually seems to complete his mission; he's delivered to it in a state of near-hallucination ... barely under his own power.
Millet's writing is deft and gently satirical. There are fewer LOL moments and ironic juxtapositions than she's capable of, but you get some. Her tone is thoughtful and slightly regretful, and Millet doesn't preach her concerns for the environment, the numbing effects of bureaucracies on the human soul, and the venality of U.S. policy abroad. She filters them through Hal's increasingly hazy musings on life and marriage and parenting.
Ghost Lights closes while leaving lots of loose threads. I, for one, look forward to their final tangle.