Lydia Millet once complained that contemporary American fiction too often ignores “the world of the non-domesticated animal.” No one will accuse her of doing that in her new novel, “Magnificence.” The final book in a trilogy that began with “How the Dead Dream,” it tells the story of Susan Lindley, a recent widow who inherits the home of her great-uncle. The kicker? The house is filled, basement to attic, with elaborate taxidermic animals that her uncle killed.
When Susan inherits this home, she is completely lost and confused. She barely knew this generous uncle. Her husband, Hal (the protagonist of “Ghost Lights,” the second novel in the trilogy), has been stabbed to death in Central America. Susan is particularly stricken because, before his death, she’d been caught having sex with a co-worker. And her daughter has informed her that she’s working as a phone-sex operator. “She was a bad mother and a slut,” Susan thinks. “Her daughter was a bad daughter and a slut. Two sluts.”
Susan’s negative sense of herself persists to the very end of the novel. What’s more, she sees her infidelity as directly responsible for her husband’s death: “The loneliness swelled, guilt pulsing at the base. She was a murderer. She took a deep breath. Murderer, murderer.”Her self-condemnation is so persistent that at one point I found myself thinking: “Don’t be so hard on yourself, Susan. Affairs hurt, but they don’t kill people.”
With the help of the silent oddness of the house, though, she comes to make a kind of peace with her behavior. In fact, the novel’s most notable accomplishment is the strangeness and beauty of this haunting menagerie. It underlines Susan’s gradual metamorphosis and allows Millet to explore the fetishization of the animal world. “She did not know,” Millet writes, “why the common raccoons of the great room kept company with the foxes, the possums, which were apparently marsupials, or the beavers, classified as semi-aquatic rodents. . . . Because without order there could be no true collecting. Without order there was only acquisition.”
I wanted to love this book because of its willingness to be strange, but I couldn’t give myself over to it entirely. The language is never less than skillful, and the images striking and inventive. But I found the characters oddly lacking in flesh and blood, especially in a novel full of animal flesh. And the parts never cohered into a narrative that compelled me forward. To some extent, the story mirrors the stasis of the animals in the house Susan inherits. It’s weirdly fascinating, yet remote.
Southgate is the author of four novels, most recently “The Taste of Salt.”