Airport Reading: How the Dead Dream and Revolutionary Road

February 9, 2009

Last weekend, I took a trip to south Florida to help my sister pick out a wedding dress. She helped me pick out mine, and somehow managed to make it be totally fun, and it was really important to me to be there to help her (what is more nerve-wracking than choosing the most expensive piece of clothing most of us middle class type people will ever wear?), and Expedia obliged me by having a very reasonable ticket available. The trip was great, despite the fact that I managed to haul an Iowa cold down to Florida AND bring it back with me. We ate sushi, hung out with Diego and Frida, watched 30 Rock on Netflix instant viewing, and best of all we found a beautiful dress right in her budget.

The trip had another highlight: reading. At the last minute, I decided to leave the work reading (which would have been excellent had I wanted to use my flying time for napping… open access metadata harvesting protocols…. Yawn) and most of the poetry (only Peter Gizzi made the carry-on cut) and take a novel with me.

Lydia Millet’s How the Dead Dream is a book I checked out from the library last September, after I had perused the Soft Skull backlist for potential collection purchases and realized that we already had it. And on top of my dresser is where it had sat until I put it in my bag to go to Florida. I left DSM at 4:55pm CST and had finished it just before landing in Florida at 11:30pm EST. I loved this book, and I loved the feeling of just devouring it.

The protagonist, T., is obsessed with money from a very young age. The kind of bizarre extremity of his devotion to literal, physical money was at first kind of hard for me to get into, but I liked the way his obsessive qualities developed as the story progressed. I appreciated his gradual transformation from an unintentionally ruthless land developer (he sees it as a game he is very good at winning and he is very young, but you aren’t really expected to feel sympathy for him, just accept that he is someone who hasn’t thought very hard about where the money he loves comes from) to someone who values the lives of animals intensely, perhaps above his own, but also without much reflection on why that is. I found this transformation believable in part, I think, because it was rooted in a much more universal kind of change—disillusionment. As he lives through his 20’s, he begins to see the fragility of human accomplishment and the fallible nature of human institutions. Money can build but it can’t restore. Nothing can replace the life of an animal. This novel also had one of the best endings I have read in a really long time. It managed a powerful sense of conclusion without overtly tying up any storylines or answering any questions about what is going to happen to T. I think Millett managed this by following the lunging pulse of her protagonist, even though it takes us somewhere that could not rationally be expected. And, by writing beautifully, and in a way that really enlarged my imagination of what it might feel like to be an animal. T.’s transformation is the conclusion, and we are sure that it is total, but other than that we don’t really know much else. Best of all, it’s the first of a trilogy, so there’s more to look forward to.

Having had such great fun gulping fiction on the way south and having neglected to pack a second novel for the trip north, I made a spur of the moment purchase at my departure gate’s book kiosk, one that offers a 50% refund if you return your book after you’ve read it: Revolutionary Road, by Richard Yates, in a paperback edition with a fetching picture of Leo and Kate on the cover. I managed to tuck in all four hundred-some pages of rather large print before I had to board my connecting flight in Dallas (longish layover made more entertaining by the televisions tuned to some random station that featured viewer call-ins on Michael Phelps—I loved that at one point it went from a woman who said she was never going to watch the Olympics again to a woman who said that legalizing marijuana was the only way to save the economy—God bless my country full of nutcases). It’s a tightly written book, with a lot of closely-observed emotional moments that would probably hurt quite a bit to read if you were not feeling very enthusiastic about your marriage. I’m not particularly well-versed in domestic novels of the early 1960’s, but I can imagine that it might have been fairly shocking for some readers then. And it rather fearlessly goes right to the edge of a couple of questions that most fiction shies away from: what do you do when you have no particular ambition but do have a sense that you’ve shortchanged your own life (it seems like most of the time this urge is played as a midlife crisis or the result of some long-harbored but very specific ambition, usually artistic)? How do you honestly reconcile that what you do 8+ hours a day does eventually say something about you, that you can’t pretend you are just gaming the system to earn enough money to have this sophisticated and intellectual personal life—you are that person who works in that office? (Or the person who cleans the house, in this novel’s gender-defined marriage.) What do you do when you turn out not to be exceptional? It doesn’t quite dive into those questions, though; it dips its toe in and then decides to go back to the surface, where we only see our protagonists through the eyes of their erstwhile neighbors. I think this is meant to have a tragic effect, but I guess one measure of how each generation’s expectations of marriage and adult life changes is that I didn’t quite buy it as a tragedy, although I might have if I had lived in its time. But I think the world that Frank and April lived in has evolved, just like, thankfully, marriage has. I’ve seen the suburbs lit up by pain in a hundred crazy ways, in Six Feet Under and The Corrections and countless other takes on what happens to the weirdness of us when it’s compressed by the outlines of a life that doesn’t fit. Tragedy is too antiseptic for the reality that these stories have unlocked.

I can’t wait to read another novel…. what’s next?


2 Responses to “Airport Reading: How the Dead Dream and Revolutionary Road”

  1. Moe Says:

    Did you ever get a chance to read The Mercy of Thin Air?

  2. SJ Says:

    Yes, and very much enjoyed it. In fact, I think I need to read it again.

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