Let me tell you about me and Lydia Millet. I don’t know her, or anything like that. She writes books and I read them. Also, she is indirectly responsible for my entire life as it is today. Because, you see, a few years ago I decided to do an MA in Literary Theory, and the first essay I handed in used George Bush, Dark Prince of Love by Lydia Millet, and the tutor didn’t like my essay (which is fine) and he gave it a bad mark (which is also fine) but one of the reasons he gave it a bad mark was my choosing an ‘unsuitable’ text. And that didn’t seem fine. It seemed odd. And it nagged at me: how could a text be unsuitable for applying a theory to? Surely, a theory taught at post-graduate level should be applicable to all texts? No? Or the theory is flawed? No? I mean, you wouldn’t get away with that in Chemistry would you? You couldn’t say, “We have this theory about solids and gases but seriously guys, don’t write any essays on carbon or helium because, man, are those elements unsuitable.” And I realised, eventually, that what he meant by ‘unsuitable’ was probably ‘good’ or ‘funny’ or ‘not a pretentious piece of crap’ or most likely ‘not something by William Faulkner’. And I realised too, eventually, that literary theory was a game, and not a very good one, and that most of the people who play it, cheat. And I got the fuck out of town. And the city I moved to is now my home. And I am happy now.
So that’s me and Lydia Millet.
Like most of my favourite writers, Millet writes literary fiction that is unafraid of, and unfazed by, humour and the speculative. Lorrie Moore writing Margaret Atwood novels, perhaps. Something like that. So… Deb marries Chip, and because he is the sort of man who befriends ever person he meets, she finds herself sharing the discovery of a marine biologist – actual live mermaids. Their secret gets out and soon a small party of tourists find themselves the last line of defence against an army of consumerism and religious bigotry. The novel is narrated by Deb, a sceptic by nature, but one who is capable of seeing, and believing, what is in front of her. She is a wonderful narrator, cynical and smart and funny. A voice ably suited to poking fun at arts and crafts,
“Gina B. later became a successful quilter. Her quilts were everywhere, at least, if you’re the type that visits community centres, women’s art cooperatives and craft conventions. If you’re a person who notices quilts, you’d certainly notice hers. Hard to miss them. The quilts have quotes, such as, for instance, I dream of giving birth to a child who will say to me: “Mommy, what was war?”
Or summing up the rise and fall of human civilisation in a single sentence,
“The writing gave us everything all of a sudden, then nothing forever.”
It is a voice that remains grounded no matter how far from the normal the story strays. A safe pair of narrative hands (can hands narrate? BSL, I suppose, or semaphore) for a dangerous literary territory – speculative fiction – which is still frowned upon by many. Still ‘unsuitable’. This is essential, because Mermaids in Paradise is not a flight of fancy but a dissection of America. In particular it is a dissection of two Americas; the modern worldview of the coastal cities versus the Old Testament sureness of the traditional heart of the country. The mermaids are a catalyst. This is a novel not about the uncanny but our reaction as a species toward it. Millet uses her premise to dismantle humanity.
She dismantles good. This is a damn fine novel.
Any Cop?: In what has been, in my opinion, a bumper year for fiction, Mermaids in Paradise sits proudly among its finest books. A funny, kind, honest, and beautiful look at our place in the universe.