Ghost Lights by Lydia Millet | Book review
Blame the zeitgeist, I suppose. In the same year that a former IRS attorney has spent most of her batty Republican nomination bid railing against taxes, we get two novels from literary heavyweights that use the most reviled of government agencies as ballast for their stories: first David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King and now Lydia Millet’s Ghost Lights. But whereas The Pale King uses a Peoria tax office as a diorama, Millet’s protagonist, Hal, wants nothing more than to escape the confines of his.
Picking up in the vicinity of where her last novel, How the Dead Dream, left off, Ghost Lights finds new protagonist Hal flying to Belize to find the previous novel’s main man T., who disappeared there months before. Hal’s wife is T.’s executive assistant, and when she contemplates hiring a private investigator to root out her boss, Hal volunteers, claiming his experience at the IRS qualifies him to track a person down. The truth is Hal suspects his wife of cheating on him, and his decision to embark on a hero’s quest is as much fueled by booze and insecurity as it is by any sense of righteousness.
As was the case in How the Dead Dream, the book is largely built as a catapult propelling its protagonist and the reader into new territory, but where How the Dead Dream got lost with T. in the wilderness, Ghost Lights finds more to explore in Hal’s mildness. A much more contemplative novel—where T. is led by action and bravado, Hal prefers to ruminate and be led—Ghost Lights puts together a clearer vision of the previous book’s themes of the way identity is tied up with social purpose.