Lydia Millet

Congratulations to Top Ten contributor Lydia Millet whose latest novel, A Children’s Bible, has been named a finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction.

The novel, her 13th book of fiction, follows a group of twelve eerily mature children on a forced vacation with their families at a sprawling lakeside mansion. Contemptuous of their parents, who pass their days in a stupor of liquor, drugs, and sex, the children feel neglected and suffocated at the same time. When a destructive storm descends on the summer estate, the group's ringleaders—including Eve, who narrates the story—decide to run away, leading the younger ones on a dangerous foray into the apocalyptic chaos outside in a landscape ravaged by environmental degradation.

Ron Charles called it “a bracing reflection on the generational conflict,” in the Washington Post, declaring: “I swear on a stack of copies that it’s a blistering little classic: Lord of the Flies for a generation of young people left to fend for themselves on their parents’ rapidly warming planet.”

Taking a wider lens on her work, Charles averred, “Millet writes brilliantly about everything—politics, physics, mermaids—and she’s one of the leading writers of environmental fiction. As [Top Ten contributor] Richard Powers did in his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Overstory, Millet addresses the existential crisis of climate change with a technical understanding of the science and a humane understanding of the heart. She’s also ferociously witty. That rare combination has made her stories about species extinction and global warming profound and weirdly amusing.”

Charles is spot-on there. It is hard to think of another writer who so deftly combines urgent concern with an almost surreal sense of humor. My Happy Life (2003, PEN Center USA Award), for example, is narrated by an abandoned, abused and largely forgotten woman who describes her hellish life in a divinely chipper voice.

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).


Appreciation of Gilbert Sorrentino’s Red the Fiend by Lydia Millet

Gilbert Sorrentino’s most accessible, straightforward, and flawless novel, Red the Fiend (1989), explores the practical and psychic tribulations of young Red. He’s a dirty urchin full of frustrated want and suppressed rage who lives in a working-class Brooklyn neighborhood (circa 1940) with his weak-willed mother and grandfather and, most important, his bitterly cruel, tyrannical grandmother. She makes his misery her first priority, calculating every move to maximize his exquisitely perfect emotional torment; for his part Red gradually learns to parry each of her sly thrusts with an equally sly one of his own.

Eventually, he derives the lion’s share of his meager joy in life from the daily toil of returning her loathing and attempting to give as bad as he gets. In brutal simplicity, with recourse to uniquely effective listing devices, the precise and beautiful prose lays bare the excruciating particularities of Red’s pain and shame and makes palpably real his journey from, if not innocence, at least relative neutrality toward craftiness and deft manipulation. With the grace and rigor of thought and language that earned

Sorrentino’s reputation as a master of stylistic play and cold humor, Red the Fiend describes in direct terms this increasingly dangerous battle of wills as it rises to its unbearable boiling point. No other novel in recent memory evokes the desolation of lovelessness with such blunt passion.