Lydia Millet landed on the scene in 1996 with her remarkably accomplished, very funny first novel, Omnivores, a phantasmagorical coming-of-age story from a decidedly skewed sensibility. Since then, besides a Pulitzer nomination (for her 2009 story collection Love in Infant Monkeys), the plaudits – as I'm certain she'd view them – cast her way include "bizarre," "absurdist," "wonderfully inventive," "smart" and "surreal," to which I would add "wacky," "witty," "wingy," even "weird," commendations all.
Ghost Lights, her latest, picks up where she left off in her previous novel, How the Dead Dream, with its young-but-old-beyond-his-years protagonist, T (short for Thomas), a money-focused real-estate developer turned animal sympathizer who at the end of that book had vanished upriver in the rain forests of Belize, the site of a resort he had hoped to build. The link between the books is T's devoted office worker, Susan, and her daughter, Casey, both of whom appear in the earlier work. But it is Susan's husband, Hal, who takes centre stage here.
A middle-aged agent with the Internal Revenue Service, Hal genuinely believes in the necessity of his job and carries it out humanely, maintaining a rare "devotion … to the quaint idea of a wise and kindly government."
The car accident that paralyzed Casey several years earlier tilted his world on its axis and it has never righted itself since. She has moved on – a bit lippy, slightly mordant but entirely self-possessed, Casey can take care of herself – but Hal is stuck, obsessed not with what was but with what should have been: "The shine of her lost joy was blinding."
Hal loves his wife, had thought their marriage working, and happy; he believed they had reached that place of accommodation given to couples who stick it out over the long haul. He does not share Susan's devotion to and affection for T, cannot in fact fathom it, but if it baffles him, it doesn't anger him, and he is contented to go along in his half-trance indefinitely … until the day he arrives home from work, unexpectedly, at noon, to find Susan's handsome young co-worker just leaving, his wife in the shower looking radiant and the bedclothes mussed and warm to the touch. In a spasm of dismay, despair and drunken impetuousness, Hal volunteers to head off to Belize and find the missing T.
And he does. Not long after arriving, and after a few adventures of his own – some less ludicrous than others – Hal locates T on a nearby island, brown, bearded, seemingly at peace among the wreckage of his hurricane-ravaged resort and in no hurry to get home. "Hard to explain. Call it a midlife crisis," he offers, to which Hal, reasonably, responds: "But you're what, all of, like, twenty-six?"
Millet's trademark (black) humour is well in evidence here – her depiction of a certain type of tourist – cheerful, outgoing, oppressively efficient and sublimely obtuse – is utterly absurd and yet spot-on. And as for Hal, bless him, his pain is real – we wince for and with him – but he is also inescapably comic. ("… he, the husband, the worn shoe, the swaybacked old mule … he was the third man, pathetic … He was a widget among men.")
But if there is such a thing as a sensitive satirist, Millet is it. How the Dead Dream managed the considerable feat of rendering an alienated, almost alien, central character – T – sympathetically, even tenderly. Here, it is as if she cannot let that go. Quiet, thoughtful, gracious – indeed, exuding a kind of grace that verges on the saintly (Hal refers to him briefly as "the Jesus-T") – T exerts a kind of moral pull under whose influence Hal simultaneously (and confusingly) grows both less likeable and more noble, less comically sympathetic and wiser, bigger, more responsible.
Both men discover something on their journey, though presumably not what they set out to find. While not, perhaps, a widget among men, Hal comes to realize he may well be a widget in the workings of the universe, which remain mysterious and not to be ordered to the liking of humankind. Precisely what T discovers, we aren't told; that door is left open in an ending that is both hopeful and sad.
Ghost Lights is the second in a trilogy. Each of these books can be read separately, with no loss of understanding or pleasure, but it's a mark of the fine writer Millet is that you find yourself anticipating the next.
Kathleen Byrne, a Toronto writer and editor, frequently reviews for Globe Books.