Lydia Millet: My Happy Life

Millet, Lydia (2002), My Happy Life, Holt
ISBN 978-0-8050-6846-7

So I have a lot of books in this apartment of mine, as I said yesterday. And this includes several books by whole writers. Those acquisitions were made on reputation alone (and usually favorable pricing situations). One such writer is Rachel Cusk. Another one is Lydia Millet. I own several of her books but haven’t read a single one. So I started with the one that seemed most obviously appealing to me from afar: the 2002 novel My Happy Life. This book is fascinating and absolutely brilliant – and it works with a naïve protagonist – or someone who prefers to tell their story as if they were one – and includes the resulting lacunae of details that are part of our stories and memories – the exactness of fact. Writing like this requires a stylistic discipline and a different exactness of detail that makes this kind of fiction extraordinarily hard to pull off. The easiest out is to use a child or a mentally ill person (or both), because that lets you off the hook in a lot of ways. The resultant bright eyed look at what is often a dark story can be effective, but has a whiff of gimmick about it. When it comes to mentally largely competent adults, the results are often a bit flat and boring or tired – and, most importantly, muddled. I think there’s a misunderstanding about these kinds of narratives. Just because someone doesn’t understand the world as we do, they are not looking at it through a mist. Children are extremely sharp observers.

What Millet pulls off in My Happy Life is a story about a woman who presents to us a world view that is more gentle than the common way we view the world, but she does this in layers and layers of observation, allowing us to see not only that her life is clearly anything but happy – in fact a continuous nightmare – but also how it has become what it is. At its core, it is about the female experience, or a female experience – how power and men grasp at the totality of womanhood – in its essential, basic elements: presentation, representation, self-reliance and biological reproduction. At every step of the way, society grasps at Lydia Millet’s protagonist and fucks her over, denying her agency, free will, and the most basic amount of empathy. In fact, that is what’s ultimately the toughest part about the book – all the men who are unable or unwilling or both to provide some empathy for this put-upon, strong, resilient woman. Why not say your life was “happy” if saying otherwise does not have any advantages among people socialized as men, or socialized to support or defend men. The exactness of detail and style throughout this book is nothing short of brilliant. Millet pulls from multiple registers, uses them all expertly, has always complete mastery of plot, dialogue, and the empire of signs that constitute our reality. In a blurb on the back, someone calls it a “dreamy whirl” – but there’s nothing dream-like about it. Millet’s protagonist may not call a spade a spade, but she describes the spade extremely well, and the distance from what she describes with utmost realism to the name she uses for it has its own literary function.

I mean, before I melt further into this puddle of praise, here’s what the book is about: it is the bildungsroman of a woman who grew up in an orphanage and ended up locked in an empty, abandoned former mental hospital. Her present situation is the framing narrative, that’s where we begin and end. We also stop there in between. From her cell in the mental hospital, she tells us about her life. Her happy life that begins in an abusive orphanage. There are things you don’t think at the beginning that become really clear towards the end of the book – everything in this novel is anchored to wider literary discourses, talks to a broader tradition of literature, a very Irigaray kind of project, overall. So this orphanage is also, of course, all the other orphanages and all their other orphans. And reading it this way recasts various characters in her novel in a different light. The bully – because each bildungsroman set in an orphanage has this morality play about masculinity in it and early fights to persist – here is simply allowed to do what he must, and the woman lets him do that for his own good. Nobody stops him, nobody asks about the beatings and their physical traces on the young girl – things just happen. What the protagonist is taught is how to apologize. She learns to say “excuse me.” She learns to cloak things in a different light. She learns that if she speaks up, if she steps out of line, she will be blamed. At school she is raped – and as a punishment, she’s kicked out of school. She attempts suicide a bunch of times, attempts for which she is punished. She is assaulted and abused by various boys and men early in her life – and that’s how she learns to look at things from a brighter side – it makes things more bearable. These are just a handful of pages that I am summarizing in such detail because what Millet does is a recasting of the common theme of orphanage abuse into the situation of a female protagonist who cannot expect empathy from her readers – much as she cannot expect empathy from people around her. Millet shows how these narratives curdle into terror when you change parts of them.

I mean the Irigaray-like “mirror” is one thing, but My Happy Life reads throughout like a conversation with various feminist theories. But it’s also a critique of pure intellectualism – the protagonist’s pain and trauma are things she learns from – and constructs a view of reality that seems disturbing. Early on she calls abusers “warriors” who “will not be stopped by skin” because “they want to catch the soul. They think that souls are heart and bone, residing in a certain place, and can be known by traveling.” She closes with a declaration of love for the abuser du jour and as a reader you have a couple of options here in how to parse this. One thing is off the table – the naivete of the uneducated, the simple of mind and brain. Throughout her life, Millet’s protagonist is seen reading books. It’s never specifically stressed, but unflaggingly mentioned, in all parts of her life, the protagonist is reading books. She’s clearly not stupid – nor uneducated in a practical sense. What Millet presents to us, instead, is the uselessness of pure knowledge. The protagonist’s knowledge is also embodied – how you deal with the world and how the world deals with you. Much later, the novel’s doublespeak is given a different analogy: on a Polynesia-sounding island (“huts on stilts”?) she learns various words in the local language and reflects on the distance between words, meaning and representation. And as we move from orphanage and school to various phases of her adulthood, Millet engages in similar doublespeak of her own, giving us examples of different power structures that we easily recognize, from capitalism to imperialism, and equating them to the abuse of patriarchy, which the early sections of the book taught us about. This, we learn, is all related – the abuse of power taken by men is replicated in the abuse of power in capitalism, which is replicated in imperialism. This is like that, and the protagonist moves through all of it until she ends up, for no good reason, in a mental hospital. She does acquire occasional problems, but when she describes what could be a delusion, and someone takes her literary, she corrects her interlocutor: this is just a figure of speech. So much for naivete.

And she undergoes all of this explicitly as a woman. Her attempts to find a job land her jobs as a maid and a cleaner. She is repeatedly raped, for a good portion of the book she is continuously raped by an industrialist who keeps her locked up and takes some kind of whip to her body that ends up covering her whole body in scars. This section reminded me of another book I meant to review. Stephen Graham Jones’s book The Least of My Scars is a masterpiece of thriller writing, about a serial killer who is completely without remorse. He is kept as a kind of pet in a house by some rich guy who hand delivers his victims to him and, one assumes, takes his pleasure from that. Like Millet, Jones’s style is masterfully precise, but the obscurities are different, what Jones does is invert externalities into this small apartment, rewriting serial killer narratives, inscribing them into the walls and architecture of one house. Jones uses various serial killer tropes and shifts them around. I should have reviewed that book first, however, since reading Millet makes me see what Jones doesn’t really touch: gender. Women in his book are objects – objects to be murdered (The Least of My Scars is extremely graphically violent), but also objects to be owned. There is an interesting differentiation he makes, but it pales when compared to My Happy Life – the various rooms and enclosures of Millet’s book mirror the rooms and enclosures from literary history, and as much as Jones condenses typical narratives, and violently savages the assumptions of interior monologue and serial killer psychology with his protagonist who has no inner life, his novel stretches into the psychology of those around him – but not into the women. Millet’s protagonist is colonialized top to bottom, from her psychology to her womb. In something of a particularly dark part of the novel, she gives birth to a son, who is then taken away from her. So maybe there’s another similarity between Jones’s book and Millet’s – Jones’s serial killer protagonist uses all parts of his victims in his acts – and Millet’s protagonist is used completely, by a patriarchal society that has no respect or patience for those among it who are assigned female at birth – and immediately, like Millet’s protagonist, shunted into the machine of patriarchy, capitalism and imperialism. That Millet connects all this to a mental hospital suggests that we should interrogate the nature of trauma, oppression and mental health.

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