Early in Lydia Millet’s novel Magnificence, Susan Lindley discovers that her husband has been stabbed to death in a dark alley in Central America. Susan is a chronic adulterer and self-professed “slut.” When Susan’s husband, Hal, catches her in the act of cheating with a man she couldn’t care less about, he opts to go on a journey to Belize.
He is going to rescue Susan’s young boss, T., a real estate developer who “fetishized his Mercedes and wore no suits retailing at less than 5K,” but who has undergone a Kurtz-like transformation on a remote beach in Central America.
T. has decided to divest himself of his considerable wealth by creating a fund for the world’s most endangered species.
Millet can be very funny. The narrative voice here is bracing and bold, sometimes purposefully grating. Susan pronounces on the failings of men with a table-turning brand of female machismo, snappy and skewering: “In one sense, though, she didn’t blame the men. That would be blaming the victim. They were hobbled by their repressed rage and Asperger syndrome, variations on which were lavishly spread throughout the male population.”
The women don’t fare much better: “In a society of aggressive or even merely confident women, she would be overlooked, but since most of them were passive and most men were lazy, the field was wide open.”
As with the female protagonist in Zadie Smith’s recent novel NW, Millet’s protagonist deals with emotional loss or numbness by partaking in as many meaningless sexual encounters as she can muster.
The promiscuity, Susan believes, has led to her husband’s death. Hal may have said he was going to Belize to find T., but Susan knows he was going to get away from her. She sees herself as Hal’s murderer.
From here the plot torques and corkscrews in all directions.
Susan’s daughter, Casey, a paraplegic and phone-sex worker, falls in love with T.; Susan inherits a Gothic mansion full to the brim with taxidermy, fauna from all over the globe; a handful of geriatrics are invited by T.’s mother, who suffers from dementia, to the mansion for a Christian book-club meeting.
The old women, who come bearing frozen cakes, sandwiches on white bread and massive numbers of paper napkins, decide to stay indefinitely (Millet is having fun here; imagine an author imagining a book club that moves in). There is a three-page critique of NPR radio host Terry Gross conducting an interview with a rapper while Susan is stuck in traffic on her way to court to fight distant relatives who want to take the mansion away from her. (I’m pretty sure I’ve heard that very interview with Terry Gross and loved it. Millet clearly has something against rap, or at least something against white, middle-aged, middle-class women who pretend to like rap); and finally, the buried mystery at the core of the novel is tantalizingly unearthed.
The subplots are slight and delivered with sleight of hand. Themes accrue; there are the questions of infidelity, environmental preservation, the moral quagmires of real estate development.
Millet touches on ideas about wealth, class, aging, sexism and female desire.
Complex characters and deft caricatures rub shoulders with each other to produce a hybrid of bright satire and touchingly brittle, broken-hearted souls who struggle to stay open to love.
Susan’s daughter, Casey, who became a paraplegic after a car accident, is potty-mouthed and brave. Though her appearances are brief, she sparkles. Millet is convincing about the restrictions of life in a wheelchair and affecting about how those restrictions can sometimes be overcome.
Magnificence, the final book of a trilogy, is more fable than realism, and promises a kind of moral or eerie warning at the end.
It is also more of a long short story than a novel, as all of these subplots are funnelled into the service of a single, graceful, short-story-like epiphany.
What Susan discovers under a manhole in her backyard, which leads to a buried basement, is both sinister and revelatory, bringing all the plots and themes together in a poetic rumination on the nature of extinction and the opposite: existence.
Lisa Moore is a novelist living in St. John’s. Her novel February was long-listed for the 2010 Man Booker Prize.
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