How the Dead Dream
Is it wrong to say that an author might have too much to say?
In 2005, Millet published the undeniably beautiful and thoughtful Oh Pure and Radiant Heart, a novel that placed the physicists behind the Manhattan Project in the present day to see what their work had wrought. She follows that with the slightly pared-down How the Dead Dream, about a supremely gifted day trader and real-estate developer in California named T. Throughout boyhood, adolescence, college and his young career, he knows nothing but the cool, antiseptic taste of financial success. But the edges of his storybook tale begin to fray when his unbalanced mother moves into his apartment. His father has discovered he’s gay and has left her to craft a new persona. T.’s girlfriend dies unexpectedly, and suddenly that cool success is replaced with the dry burn of grief.
Much more happens in this short novel, but most central is T.’s growing obsession with extinguishing species. After a new project displaces the final home of the last remaining family of kangaroo rats, T. becomes morosely infatuated with man’s persistent wiping out of animals. He begins breaking into zoos and hanging out with the beasts, occasionally falling asleep in their cages.
It’s all interesting, and Millet is a writer of tremendous wit and grace, and T.’s moral evolution feels both necessary and natural. But Millet tries to do too much in a short span with this novel. She puts T. through a series of tests—familial struggles, death of loved ones, a variety of social improprieties. But what’s at the end of the gauntlet? Certainly Millet wants to make humankind’s responsibility for the natural world personal, and T. takes it very personally. But his propulsion through the story is often rudderless, and the various trials are too diversionary or too off the mark, striking out at targets that seem tangential at best.