Lydia Millet’s most recent novel was a polished rapier called “A Children’s Bible.” One of the best books of 2020, it begins with the tipsy tedium of a summer vacation involving several families. But then it quickly slips into a national apocalypse fueled by climate change and anarchy.
There is actual tragedy in “Dinosaurs,” but most of it takes place before the book opens — so long ago, in fact, that the central character, Gil, can barely remember it. As we learn through a few brief references, when he was a child, Gil lost both his parents in a car accident. His severe grandmother cared for him for several years, but then she died, too. He remained in her house, where a series of well-paid guardians looked after him “like a fly trapped in amber.” And when he finally turned 18, Gil came into possession of a trust fund so vast that it could never be depleted.
“Dinosaurs,” then, is a story about an extraordinarily wealthy White man struggling to make his way in the modern world. You may be under the impression that there are more urgent stories being told these days. This novel will confirm that suspicion. I kept expecting to feel the deadly edge of Millet’s satirical wit, but Gil is allowed to luxuriate in his gold-plated self-pity largely unscathed.
The opening pages present Gil reeling from a bad breakup with his girlfriend. From the depth of this existential crisis, he becomes convinced that he needs a change of life and venue, so he decides to walk from Manhattan to Phoenix, where he’s bought a house off the internet. At 25 miles a day, that trek takes him about five months. “Time moved so slowly that he ceased to measure it,” Millet writes. “The slowness seemed like grace.”
We’ll have to take her word for it.
Soon after Gil moves into his new house in the desert, he notices movement next door. It’s a striking modern building walled entirely with glass. The new owners are an attractive young couple and their two children, a teenage girl and a little boy. “It was hard not to look at them,” Millet writes. “At first they seemed like a group of mannequins to him, in a high-end department store window. Say Bloomingdale’s. Or Saks.”
You’re probably already thinking about Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window” or A.J. Finn’s recent knockoff “The Woman in the Window,” or even Netflix’s delicious satire “The Woman in the House Across the Street From the Girl in the Window.” Or maybe the more suspicious readers among you are worried about Gil’s interest in his new neighbors’ little boy.
I’m telling you: Put all those concerns out of your mind.
As this tale unfolds, the neighbors and Gil become fast friends. The wife is delightful; the husband amiable. Gil waters their plants when they go on vacation. And with lots of free time, he becomes their son’s go-to babysitter. Though he has no experience with children, he’s naturally kind and encouraging in just the ways this kid needs.
“Dinosaurs” is not without some emotional tension, but that tension is tempered, almost subterranean. Freed by his immense inheritance from any responsibilities or burdens, Gil is a melancholy, lonely man struggling to find some reason for existing. “I’m just a parasite,” he says. “I have time for everything.” He worries that he’s merely “occupying space, a slot in the world, for no good reason.”
Commendably, he wants to do something that matters. Like all of us, he craves some proof of his real worth.
And so, the novel offers a series of well-crafted incidents that present Gil learning to assert his values. In his most determined mode, he volunteers as an attendant at a women’s shelter. He comforts the widow of a close friend; he keeps a bully from picking on the neighbors’ son; and he develops an interest in protecting native birds, those distant relatives of the dinosaurs.
In such passages, Millet confirms that she’s a master of poignant moments. These scenes are charming, often witty, sometimes moving. And I have no doubt that fabulously wealthy folks in the prime of their lives with nothing to do endure the dark of the soul along with the rest of us — just on better sheets.
But do you want to read about how woeful that is?
Millet has explored this species of existential despair more powerfully before. For instance, “How the Dead Dream” followed a rich real estate developer who suddenly began communing with animals hurtling toward extinction. That novel came out 15 years ago, but I can still recall its haunting sense of longing and dread spun through a story that was persistently unnerving.
Such poignancy and quirkiness have been effectively domesticated in “Dinosaurs,” which asks us to care but doesn’t give us much reason to.
Ron Charles reviews books and writes the Book Club newsletter for The Washington Post.
By Lydia Millet
W.W. Norton. 230 pp. $26.95
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