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Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2011-08-08
- Reviewer: Staff
By his own account, Hal has “become a typical domestic drone, a man wrapped up in the details of his own life and only his own.” His IRS job seems redundant, underscoring that Hal is a drab, routine, sad man. His adult daughter is in a wheelchair, and Hal mourns her mobility often. His wife is having an affair, a development that feels unnecessarily exaggerated, as if a stale, mid-life marriage in the wake of their daughter’s accident wouldn’t have been fodder enough for self-reflection. In an attempt to rattle the circumstances of his existence, Hal volunteers to track down his wife’s missing boss (T., of Millet’s earlier novel How the Dead Dream), last seen in the jungles of Belize. Most of the book recounts Hal’s interior thoughts in prose that lacks the lyricism and beauty Millet is known for. When recalling a gorgeous German woman Hal flirted with at a hotel, we’re told, “He liked Gretel. She was nice.” As the clues of the disappearance emerge, suspense builds, but Hal never breaks through his emotional distance. Though this passiveness might be at the root of his awkward, battered character, the result keeps the reader at a distance as well. (Oct.)
A question-raising quest
In Lydia Millet’s 2008 novel, How the Dead Dream, she introduced readers to T., a troubled real estate developer who takes an obsessive interest in endangered animals—to haunting and remarkably engaging effect. Needless to say, when Millet announced that two more books would follow in the same series, fans and critics were thrilled to see where the darkly cerebral trilogy would lead. The second novel, Ghost Lights, does not disappoint.
Here, we pick up after T.’s Heart of Darkness-like disappearance into the jungles of Belize. Now, T.’s secretary Susan is struggling to manage the leaderless company and Hal, Susan’s husband and the novel’s reluctant hero, is dragged into the drama. For starters, he’s worried that his wife has become dangerously consumed with finding her boss. Additionally, he learns his wheelchair-bound daughter is a phone sex operator. Finally, he’s pretty sure he’s being cuckolded. Thus, in an act of total desperation-cum-bravado, he decides to travel to South America to track down the missing employer, launching his own Conrad-esque journey into the tropical wilds.
Millet is at her best when describing trespasses and betrayal; Hal’s indignation and subsequent bad behavior in the book’s first half are simultaneously honest, funny and sad. This said, as Hal comes closer to finding T., he draws further into his own head, and the lyricism and wit of earlier chapters fails to punctuate his thoughts. This is no doubt intentional—Millet seems to be commenting on the nature of disappointment and the inability to fully right wrongs. Luckily, such interiority runs parallel to the plot-driven, exciting quest to find T., which means that we’re never short on action for very long.
When we do come upon the missing man, his story both satisfies and invites more questions. The same could be said of Ghost Lights on the whole.