What’s the catch? Perhaps that is the question Susan Lindley, the damaged but easily likeable protagonist of Magnificence, should have asked when she inherited her distant uncle’s massive Pasadena estate. In her case, the catch isn’t taxes or finances but taxidermy — the house is packed with preserved specimens, from quail to lion.
Yet while Susan at first intends to donate them, the specimens soon become a strange comfort while at the same time deepening into a symbolic narrative touchstone. “At first she had been determined to rid herself of their carcasses with all possible speed, but curiously the impulse was fading: the longer she lived with them the greater their hold.” Soon Susan even begins to feel protective of those in need of repair. The creatures become a constant reminder of one of the novel’s premier concerns — death, loss and survival, both animal and human.
But let’s rewind. Lydia Millet’s nuanced and thoughtful book — the third in a series that began with 2008’s How the Dead Dream, followed by last year’s Ghost Lights — is not just about this curious plot element. The novel opens with Susan’s cutting ruminations on the nature of man, specifically how hormones make men and women insane: “Oddly, the chronic insanity of men was often referred to as stability; the men, being permanent sociopaths, got credit for consistency. Whereas women, being mere part-time neurotics, were typecast as flighty.”
The passage signals readers that the book is foremost one of ideas, and it situates Susan wittily inside her struggle with sexual transgressions and desires. Soon afterward, she and her daughter Casey are faced with the murder of her husband, Hal, who has been living in Belize since he discovered Susan’s infidelity (his journey is detailed in Ghost Lights; How the Dead Dream introduces Susan’s employer T and his growing obsession with disappearing species). Rather than consuming all the narrative tension at the start, the setup is an effective launching pad for a novel that is also about much more than how Susan and Casey navigate the aftermath of Hal’s death.
Flesh and skin bind the narrative, which is entwined with Susan’s concerns. When letting go of Hal, she remembers his skin: “It was the skin that bound you most, the contact of two skins.” And of course in her sexual liaisons, she needed the contact of flesh, not the meeting of minds. “Flesh was always a consolation — flesh, not beauty.” But Millet’s prose is most charged by its probing yet subtle exploration of the meaning of existence and the visceral experience of love and loss.
Everything dies, Millet seems to assert, so what are we making so much fuss about? Or are we making too little? Through Susan, wry humor seeps into intrepid investigations into death and dying: “In any case the dead were almost as beautiful as the living, sometimes more so. They had far fewer needs.”
When a twist brings T.’s aging mother to stay at her home, Susan is slowly surrounded by aging and dead things — elderly ladies who lunch and long-dead animals, while she’s only getting older each day: “We’re brittle and fading, she thought. Fading like moths, gray-blond mothers. With each day the population aged.”
There’s much to explore in Magnificence, which is ambitious, often funny and deliciously provocative. One needn’t have read the entire series to be consumed by its pleasures, but by the time you reach its beautiful end, considerable comfort lies in the existence of two more novels in which to delight in Millet’s writing and imagination.
Christine Thomas is a writer in Hawaii.