A series of conversations with writers about a book they love. In this installment, Aimee Bender talks with me about My Happy Life by Lydia Millet.
Bender is the author of five books: The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, (1998) which was a New York Times notable book; An Invisible Sign of My Own (2000) which was a Los Angeles Times pick of the year; Willful Creatures (2005), which was nominated by The Believer as one of the best books of the year; The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake (2010),which recently won the SoCal Independent Booksellers Award for Best Fiction and an Alex Award; and The Color Master, just released in August 2013.
My Happy Life by Lydia Millet
Colin Winnette: I'm interested in why we read what we read, why certain great (or not so great) books are chosen over others, and what brings us back to a work again and again. What struck you about My Happy Life on your first read?
Aimee Bender: I'd always been curious about Millet, and I read My Happy Life soon after it came out. I was so struck by what it takes on, and how it does its unusual job. Really, I was just amazed and moved by this voice and this narrator.
CW: Not only did you recommend this book for our conversation, you've taught it several times. Are you discovering new aspects of the book with each reteaching, or is it a particularly "teachable" book?
AB: It's such a good "first person" teaching book — about a narrator whose perception is so different than ours, and how Millet pulls this off. When I last taught it, one student was particularly fascinated by the political ramifications of the book — we read an interview where Millet talks about My Happy Life as her take on the trend of transcendent memoirs and her issue with that kind of book — and appreciated Millet's gumption there.
CW: This is unlike anything else I've read by Lydia Millet. In her other work, Millet often utilizes delusion in a way that is more immediately recognizable as satire. I'm thinking of books like George Bush, Dark Prince of Love or Everyone's Pretty. In My Happy Life, Millet's use of dramatic irony is a painful kind of complicated. The disturbing reality of the events that take place are enhanced by the narrator's peculiarly optimistic and tender outlook. Her capacity to narrate the horrors of her life with a kind of infectious wonder and affection creates a paradox of feeling.
What was your experience of the voice in My Happy Life? How do you see it fitting in with Millet's body of work? Did you observe the dynamic I'm describing here or did the voice strike you as functioning in another way entirely?
AB: Yes, I think you capture the dynamic well — paradox is a good way of putting it. The reader is put in an odd and interesting and uncomfortable position. I feel awful for the character's inability to tend to herself and the incredible depth of her passivity, yet I also get this sneaking suspicion that her worldview is beautiful in its own way. So it leaves me in a kind of bind that I think is incredibly skillful on Millet's part, and yes, very different than her other work. In class, we were also talking about what more "regular" human characteristic is this narrator missing that would make most of us behave differently? What quality is there that the rest of us don't have, or isn't there? It also makes me think about a talk I heard once about entitlement. How we are entitled to nothing, really, but we think we are entitled to a whole lot. I think this engages that question. That little room in the motel/long-term stay place where she cleans and spends time with old and broken people is her safest nicest place. There is such genuine happiness in the character there.
CW: The "genuine happiness" is crucial. That's what makes the book more than just an adventure story [or a] story of abuse told by a lovingly naive narrator — I'm thinking of something like Forrest Gump here. That position might get too cute or annoying or boring, or perhaps just too painful. Sadistic, maybe. This book is certainly not that. In spite of the cruelty and hardships she suffers, the narrator is always capable of taking genuine pleasure in particular beauties, particular feelings of love and kinship, and that's something readers react strongly to, maybe even something we want for ourselves — one of the more crushing elements of the book. Do we envy her? View her as supra-real? What were your thoughts on the "'regular' human characteristic" this narrator is missing, if any? Or, as you've stated, alternatively, is there something she has that we don't?
AB: So interesting, the envy idea. She certainly has some handle on humanness in a way most of us can't maintain. And I agree how it's different than something like Forrest Gump, which so easily feels cute or darling. What the characteristic is, another student described it as the instinct to pull your hand away from a hot oven. Most of us, if burned, avoid the oven. She doesn't. Or something about the layering of trauma — she is impacted, her hair goes white, she is deeply affected — but it does not seem to alter her basic self. She is still open to the world. That is both inspiring and frightening!
CW: Recently, for purely coincidental reasons, I've read a number of books about people trapped in or confined to rooms, or small spaces — Room, Malone Dies, The Little Girl Who Was Too Fond of Matches, to name a few. Something that concerns/interests me is the way different writers choose to tackle the issue of constructing a narrative voice for that situation.
In my opinion, My Happy Life differs dramatically from a book like Room because Millet's not attempting any obvious tricks or affectations. In Room, Emma Donoghue attempts to capture the voice of a child isolated from the world, but in My Happy Life, Millet's writing style doesn't shift dramatically to suit her narrator. Rather, she seems more interested in articulately describing the unique perspective of her peculiar/wonderful central character. Either that, or this narrator is just somehow an excellent writer. Do you make a distinction between voice and perspective? Which do you see as more aggressively at work here? Then, finally, what is the advantage of Millet's technique in this regard? In what ways is she particularly successful? Unsuccessful?
AB: I've read Room but not the others there, though Beckett is a great fit, probably the master of the one-room drama. I do think it's a writer's particular challenge to keep one room somehow engaging and alive when there's so little external stimuli. It was very helpful when Donoghue would allow her character to animate all the objects in the room in his mind, making it into a kind of well-populated land. In fact, I think it was the strongest part of the whole book. With Millet, I always stick on that great line about how the main character, while trapped in a room, long ago ate the soap, the toothpaste, the something else, and how the toothpaste was "by far the best." (I'm quoting by memory but I think that's right.) Because it is so wholly inside this narrator's world and utterly believable and awful. And yet I'm glad for her that the toothpaste was the best. Of course it was! That's the mix of it — horror at the situation, pleasure at the mintiness of toothpaste. Re: voice and perspective, I don't make a big distinction in a book like this. The voice and the perspective are so well-blended together. In a third-person book I think the two separate more clearly. I guess I am aware that Millet, the writer, is not one who sees the world this way, so that the perspective holds negative space in that way. I enjoy that negative space — it allows a lot of room for me to be thinking my own thoughts alongside reading about her thoughts and this is a reading pleasure for me.
CW: That line really is something. A lesser writer might have exhausted herself trying to capture how horrible things were by detailing the wretchedness alone. Millet gives us this little sliver of pleasure, which somehow makes the reality she's conjuring infinitely more wretched...but also oddly charming. Reading that line, I imagine a little grin on Millet's face. Do you see Millet having fun here? And, if so, what does that bring to the book overall? How does it function differently here than in her more pronouncedly comedic satires?
AB: She very likely is having some fun, or wanting to poke at us. But I read it as utterly sincere. Others I know read the book and find it funny in parts — maybe due to the high level of absurdity of some of the pain/reaction to pain. But it just gets me! She's walking a fine line there. What you say also reminds me of Cynthia Ozick's masterpiece story, "The Shawl." It's a Holocaust story that is devastating because all the imagery is beautiful. It is almost unbearable to read something so lovely and know it is the worst of humanity happening, just rendered in gorgeous prose. That gap, that disconnect, gives a reader room to feel, I find.
CW: In what ways, if at all, do you think the disconnect between our experience of the narrator's story and her experience as she reports it is Millet's way of addressing the potential problems of the transcendent memoir?
AB: Sometimes one of the issues of the "transcendent memoir" is less room for the reader to feel something different than what the book is saying. There's an alignment with the author, and that is part of that kind of memoir's pleasure: a feeling of connection, of identifying, or relating. Here, it's so different. She's making a contrast.
CW: Would you care to leave us with a passage or sentence? A teaser of some kind so people will have a taste of what they're in for?
AB: "I have always followed crowds, because I want to be with them. It may be a deficiency."
This is its own paragraph, stand alone. Those measured sentences, with a steady landscape of feeling below. Then, "it may be" — the open question of the whole book. Is it?