Monday, April 24, 2006

book 21: My Happy Life by Lydia Millet

(out of order, but you'll just have to wait for book 20...)

Since I had to wait so damn long to get my hands on a library copy of Oh Pure and Radiant Heart, I decided to see what other books by Lydia Millet were getting dusty on the NYPL's shelves. Enter My Happy Life, the story of the least happy life I have read written in such a hopeful yet hilarious tone.

The main character narrates her life from the confines of a mental hospital, which we soon find out has been abandoned by its staff and inmates. Where and why we don't know, but it doesn't really matter. The real story here is how this woman ended up eating toothpaste and taking cold showers in her whitewalled cell, when she has such a great descriptive gift and a fine attitude about the fickleness of fate. Hee ha ho, the irony-- but wait, this book is actually quite good.

Each chapter is titled with the name of one of the objects that the main character has gathered in her life that represent the time and place of its capture. This simple device is beautifully employed by Millet, and gives a real resonance to a metaphor that could have gotten worn out with a quickness in a more heavy-handed writer's hands.

Millet's greatest feat is her ability to carry a whole novel in the first person. The main character's voice is always strong and individual. The details come through organically, never causing the kind of fucked up narrator to have to notice more than she should.

There is a lot of violence and abuse in My Happy Life, but the tale coming from the mouth of the narrator is one of a person with great limitations making their way in a hostile and degrading world full of darkness, finding a path only through some kind of internal light. I found all kinds of situations to identify with in MHL-- mostly the narrator's ghostly feelings of lonliness and loss, and the way thoughts come without warning (Millet does a great thing when she has this character talk about the different qualities of different kinds of memories). I am glad that Millet presented them in a way that made me laugh, made me proud for my past selves and everyone else who has struggled not to break under the strain of living in an absurdly alien society, and let me jump of from her character's intensely bizarre existence into deliciously sustaining reveries.

Yes, I said reveries. All smart ladies have them, you know, even tough ones.

* ETA: sorry Lydia, for calling you Linda for so long

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