Lydia Millet

Lydia Millet is that rare bird – a passionate environmentalist who spends her days trying to save the planet at the Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson and an acclaimed novelist who spends her nights and weekends crafting open-ended works of fiction that do not fall into the trap of activism or dogma.

This is no mean feat as her writing, while still filled with empathy, humor and imagination, has taken on a more urgent tone as environmental – and even apocalyptic – increasingly color her work. Her 2020 novel, A Children’s Bible, for example, followed a group of twelve eerily mature children on a forced vacation with their families who decide to run away when a destructive storm descends on the summer estate, embarking on a dangerous foray into the apocalyptic chaos outside. As Jeffery Ann Goudie observed in the Boston Globe,  "Lydia Millet has given us a compellingly written, compact, slyly funny novel that warns of the catastrophic events that may overwhelm us. Unless."

If that novel contained a warning about the road we may be heading down, Millet new novel, Dinosaurs, can be read as a parable about how we might summon our better angels under testing circumstances; a true artist, Millet does not let her politics strangle her art; instead she lets her art breath humanity into politics.

The novel’s protagonist is a man named Gil, a wealthy heir to an oil fortune ( “a coat of shame he always had to wear”) who walks from New York to Arizona to recover from a failed love. After he arrives, new neighbors move into the glass-walled house next door and his life begins to mesh with theirs. In this warmly textured, drily funny, and philosophical account of Gil’s unexpected devotion to the family, Millet explores the uncanny territory where the self ends and community begins―what one person can do in a world beset by emergencies.

“The novel offers a series of well-crafted incidents that present Gil learning to assert his values,” Ron Charles wrote in the Washington Post. “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 her New York Times review, the novelist Sigrid Nunez expresses some frustration with the novel’s gentleness and lack of burning conflicts.

Millet keeps thwarting the reader’s expectations of drama, and offers instead a subdued portrait of a wounded middle-aged man’s journey toward wholeness. … Millet may have thought that, in a time of widespread hatred, bigotry and violence, this is the kind of fiction we need: a comforting story about decency and simple human goodness.”

But writing in The New Yorker, Katy Waldman sees a more subtle kind of conflict: "[Gil] is mourning his ex-girlfriend, who left after fifteen years without so much as a goodbye. The lack of closure is a torment. Gil feels like 'less than no one. Because no one, at least, contained possibility.' Dinosaurs thus belongs to a cadre of recent novels that wrestle with the phenomenon of complex loss: grief that lingers after incomplete or ambiguous endings. These books, which include Christine Smallwood’s The Life of the Mind (2021) and Namwali Serpell’s The Furrows (2022), often link characters’ suffering to the creeping terminality of the natural world. They have their own iconography—ghosts, thresholds, twilight—and preoccupations: lives riven between past and present, language that fails, understanding that flickers just out of reach." 

Lydia Millet’s Top Ten List

1. JR by William Gaddis (1975)
2. Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf (1925)
3. Voyage of the ‘Dawn Treader’ by C. S. Lewis (1952)
4. The Lorax by Dr. Seuss (1971)
5. Woodcutters by Thomas Bernhard (1984)
6. The War with the Newts by Karel Capek (1936)
7. Auto-da-Fé by Elias Canetti (1935)
8. Red the Fiend by Gilbert Sorrentino (1995)
9. Masquerade and Other Stories by Robert Walser (1878–1956)
10. Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable, a trilogy by Samuel Beckett (1951–54)