Though they often deal in dark themes—humanity’s rampant destruction of the earth is a common backdrop—Lydia Millet’s books are also, paradoxically, hilarious. Granted, it’s a grim humor, laced with sadness—but even so, it’s probably no surprise that the author in conversation is warm-voiced and inclined toward laughter.
Millet, who spoke to us from a parking lot outside an L.A. Fitness, and then from inside her car when it started to rain, sounds thoroughly non-gloomy on the phone. In her voice, there’s no sense of the looming apocalypse that in most of her books is a given.
“I tend to laugh out loud while writing,” Millet says, “which makes me seem insane because I usually write in public places. I laugh as I read, too.”
If this sounds unlikely, it’s only because you haven’t read Millet’s new novel, Mermaids in Paradise. Not LOLing while doing so is a bit of a challenge. Probably her flat-out funniest book yet, it’s part satire, part social commentary and part rollicking adventure.
The story is set mostly on a tropical island and is narrated by a woman named Deb, who’s on her honeymoon with her new husband, Chip. Chip’s extreme gregariousness leads the couple to befriend a marine biologist, who soon makes a startling discovery: a bunch of actual mermaids hanging out near the coral reef.
The revelation of the mermaid colony prompts an ugly three-way battle between the forces of exploitation, preservation and religious hysteria that—despite the element of fantasy at its core—is plausible enough to feel like documentary. And like the best comedy, it’s kind of depressing.
Deb, our saucy narrator, sounds like what you’d hear if the Internet had a collective voice. She speaks in a hyper-caffeinated pastiche of received language and piercingly vivid detail; she’s obviously brilliant, but she is also a creature of this world, the world of status updates and marketing-speak. There is an art to the precision deployment of the well-worn phrase in the service of comedy, and Deb has mastered it. When she trots out “literally” or “quite a bit” or “so that was the situation there,” it’s hilarious rather than annoying, because she wields these phrases like weapons.
“I love judgmental women, their voices,” Millet says. “I enjoyed writing her. This book and another I wrote together are kind of a matched set. I wrote them both as sort of laugh machines for myself while I worked on something that was difficult.” (The second book is called The Palms of Bora-Bora; when it might appear is not yet decided, Millet says.)
It wasn’t a struggle to find Deb’s voice, says Millet; in fact, it’s usually a strong voice that starts a novel off. “The struggle is to remain within the voice as things happen,” she explains. “There needs to be change and transformation”—other characters necessarily arrive and do things, the plot develops—“and that’s when it’s harder to sustain the voice.”
Deb’s best friend, Gina, has an even more cutting tone and is equally uproarious. She’s a dedicated ironist and devastatingly observant. Millet says she’s known people like this since college, who are “just so committed to irony.”
Chip, on the other hand, provides a sweet-natured counterpoint to the acidic humor of Deb and Gina. “Chip is my ideal man in a certain way,” Millet says. “He’s so friendly and a geek and also kind of hot, maybe not that bright, but—like a Labrador.”
In the book, Deb refers at one point to Chip’s “golden-retriever light” having dimmed after a conversation. “Golden retriever, that’s kind of harsh,” Millet says now, laughing. “He’s more of a Lab.”
Though any novel with mermaids in it is arguably going to be a bit outlandish, Millet plays those elements fairly straight. She says she hopes the book does not come across as wacky. “Wacky and quirky are adjectives I strive to avoid,” she says, “now that I’m 45.”
“Wacky and quirky are adjectives I strive to avoid,” she says, “now that I’m 45.”
She does find it easier to work with plot when there’s also humor—but adds that going for laughs is a bit of a gamble.
“You really want people to laugh,” she says. “It’s not going to be rewarded in any other way,” since funny books are often not taken seriously as literature.
“We should pay attention to humor and satire,” she says. “It’s wrong that they’re sort of second-class citizens in the world of literary prestige—and especially if they’re written by women, I’m guessing.”
One advantage of couching serious ideas inside a humorously told story is that it tends to increase receptivity. “It makes us more . . . I don’t want to say more open, but it makes us rawer in a given moment,” Millet says.
This certainly holds true for Mermaids in Paradise. Spiked throughout the book are a handful of gut-punch moments, and their impact is greater because of the overall relaxed tone of the novel; the combination leaves you exposed, rather than on the defensive as you might otherwise be when reading a book whose subject is our plundering of the natural world. This is doubly true of the ending, which contains a twist that puts everything that came before in a new light.
In addition to these two comic novels and the more serious project she wrote them to escape from, Millet also published a young adult novel earlier this year with Akashic Books and works 30 hours a week as a staff writer at the Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson. She’s also raising two kids: a girl, 10, and boy, 6. How does she balance her various responsibilities?
“There hasn’t been a balance,” she says. She gives herself three hours of writing time on weekends and can sometimes eke out half an hour on a weekday. “I’m definitely writing at a slower pace than I used to,” she says. But she loves the work she does at the Center, and it obviously ties in with her fiction-writing interests. “I wouldn’t want to give it up, even if I could financially.”
Still, she says, “I wouldn’t mind just 10 more hours [in] a week.”