The hero of novelist Lydia Millet’s latest moral fantasy is named Thomas, but his mother and almost everyone else call him “T.” He isn’t an Everyman, but he is a modern type, a young Californian real estate developer who manages to wheel and deal his way into the ranks of the hyper-rich, only to arrive feeling empty and alone. He is the Master of the Universe who has lost his soul.
It’s not all his fault. His father abandons the family after coming out as gay. His fiancée dies in a freak car accident. His mother – and this is the most significant loss – disappears into dementia. Even his dog is dognapped. Without any close relationships to give his life meaning and context, T drifts into a state of profound empathy for endangered species. He breaks into zoos and sleeps in their cages. He tracks them down in the wild. He sees them as sharing his position “at the forefront of aloneness, like pioneers. They were the ones sent ahead to see what the new world was like.”
That new world is motherless. And for Millet, motherhood represents more than just the natural world that is being destroyed by men like T – it is a primal value, an unchanging love that connects us to every other living thing. It is the strongest thread in a web of connections that is, finally, the only thing that gives meaning to human dominion over nature. The meanest creatures beneath our feet – ants, kangaroo rats – are the foundation of empire. “If the oceans were dead and the forests replaced by pavement even empire would be robbed of its consequence,” Millet writes. Remove one part of the great chain of being and all “complexity would be gone, replaced with dull sameness that stretched out unending.”
It’s a simple message, but Millet does a good job selling it. How the Dead Dream runs fast and deep, managing to overcome clichéd characters and weak dialogue with a strong, uncluttered storyline. Through his “terrible sympathy” for dying animals, T recognizes what is human in them. The dead dream of the mother that they, T, and all the rest of us have lost.