Before reading this book, I had no idea who this author was. Yet, within a dozen pages, I was coming to understand that I was reading something quite special. The fact that I should be so impressed by Millet’s writing is all the more amazing when I reflect that the protagonist of the book is a devoted capitalist—hardly a person I would normally be drawn to. Throughout most of the book, he is simply referred to a ‘T’. Yet T’s transformation is both poetic and spectacular.
As a boy T’s principle passion is to ‘collect’ money and stash it under his pillow at night. He receives a visceral thrill as he studies the lithographic etching on the American dollar bill. In college, he is a friend to all, but intimate with no one. It is ‘T’ who is the designated driver, ‘T’ who sorts out his friend’s indiscretions and messy relationships. ‘T’ himself avoids all youth’s usual excesses, in favour of focusing on the market, real estate and mapping out his destiny. He is enamoured with a vision of high rises, new highways, bright lights, holiday resorts, retirement homes in the desert, the creation of which will become the source of his material wealth and self-worth.
It is worth noting that the protagonist of “How the Dead Dream” is a male, and the writer female. It is the most convincing cross-gender writing I have ever come across. Never once did I doubt the authenticity of the male voice of ‘T’.
But what makes this novel so good? The writing to be sure, which is extremely lyrical at times, and the psychological insights Millet has which are quite breath-taking. In the end, what is most impressive, is the journey she takes the reader on. We meet ‘T’ arch-capitalist, without a soul it seems, at first, but then gradually we see a change take place. It begins when he is driving at night and hits a coyote. He stops his car to check on it. It’s not yet dead. He feels obligated to carry it off road—even though he doesn’t know what to expect—after all, it might bite him. He stays with it until it takes its last breath. That moment changes him, though he doesn’t realize it at the time.
Later ‘T’ who, till this time, has never surrendered himself to anyone emotionally meets Beth, the love of his life, but tragedy strikes, and that relationships lasts only a short time. His father, a man in his sixties, suddenly, and without explanation, leaves his wife. ‘T’ does his best to console his mother, and has her live with him. She develops early dementia. The scenes of ‘T’, the son, speaking with a mother who doesn’t even recognize him, in fact thinks he is a criminal, are heart-wrenching.
Quite unexpectedly—to me, at least—‘T’ then develops an obsession with endangered animals, going to great lengths to be in their company. For him, they come to represent the world condition, the ultimate fate of each individual and each species, creatures near their end and alone, desperately alone. Some of the novel’s most memorable moments take place as ‘T’ stands eye-to-eye with some of these forlorn and mighty creatures.
This might help explain the otherwise quite obscure cover of the book: it is a close up of an elephant’s eye.
I did not read Millet’s book in one sitting—I never do, but I could very easily imagine myself making an exception for this book. It was that compelling, that beautifully written, that filled with compassion, longing and even humour. It’s one of the best things I’ve read in years.
Only the “classics of literature would get a higher rating from me. I have a new favourite author!