How the Dead Dream

Lydia Millet garnered critical acclaim for her novel Oh Pure and Radiant Heart in 2005. The book was even shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke Award. The author sort of fell under my radar since then. But when William "Stego" Lexner recommended How the Dead Dream on Westeros around the Holidays, I knew I needed to give it a shot.

T. is a young and brilliant real estate developer with a reverence for money. Solitary to a fault, he suddenly falls in love and his orderly existence is thrown into disarray. And yet, just as happiness is knocking on his door, the sudden appearance of his unbalanced mother seeking comfort following her husband's painful desertion will plunge everything into chaos. As T. gradually loses control after a series of heartbreaking losses, he develops a curious obsession for rare species on the brink of extinction. Soon, T. starts to break into zoos at night to be in the company of the animals that are the last of their kind.

Since environmental issues lie at the heart of this book, I was afraid that the narrative would turn political and kill the story. But Millet avoids, for the most part, the often heavy-handed lecturing tone of a majority of environmentally self-conscious works. Indeed, the story opens up with a recounting of T.'s childhood and teenage years, all told in the witty and satirical style and tone which are the author's trademark.

Although far from a likeable character, you can't help but root for T. Vain, driven, obsessed with money, full of predatory insights, there is nevertheless a more humane side to him that we discover and appreciate as the plot moves along.

Currency infused all things, from the small to the monolithic. And to be a
statesman the first thing needed was not morals, public service, or the power of
rhetoric; the first thing needed was money. Because finally there was a single
answer. As there was only one intelligence residing in a self, as trees grew
upward toward the sun, as women lived outward and men walked in insulation to
the end of their lives: when all was said and done, from place to place and
country to country, forget the subtleties of right and wrong, the struggle
toward affinity. In the lurch and flux, in all the variation and the same, it
was only money that could set a person free.

The gorgeous prose makes it a joy to read How the Dead Dream, yet the pace becomes decidedly uneven and begins to drag in the last third of the novel.

As the story progresses, the book takes on a darker tone which sort of clashes with that of the earlier parts. This melancholy state, as T. must deal with grief and loneliness, becomes an exploration of the character's spiritual crisis.

The main problem is that the author then interrupts the flow of the novel with a number of plot twists that contribute little to the story. Hence, the ending to this relatively short work is kind of disrupted by these events.

How the Dead Dream starts off as a truly brilliant novel, one that I thoroughly enjoyed on basically ever level. Yet the last third of the book suffers from unnecessary interruptions that take something away from the finale.

Still, a good, if uneven, read. If you are jaded and you're looking for something different, How the Dead Dream could be for you.

The final verdict: 7.5/10

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