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Omnivores

by Lydia Millet

In Lydia Millet’s debut novel, everything’s lunch, potentially. That’s to say that whoever you are in this novel – whether a moth or a web-worm or one or another of the human characters – you’re on notice that you may at any moment be eaten by one or another of your fellow characters. But then, what were you expecting from a novel called Omnivores?

Toronto-born, Millet is a story herself. Now 28, she followed a degree from the University of North Carolina with a stint in Los Angeles working on magazines like Busty Beauties and Hustler. She’s now back at university, at Duke, completing a master’s. Omnivores doesn’t betray the overpowering influence of one side or the other, erotic or academic. So maybe it’s a Los Angeles sensibility at work – that’s where the novel’s set – and like L.A., Omnivores is violent and unseemly, funny and frightening, slightly unbelievable and altogether unpredictable. In the novel (if not the city) Hieronymous Bosch meets Leon Rooke; it’s richly imaginative, acidly absurd, medievally creepy, weirdly delightful.

Estee Kraft is Millet’s lead character; in the first part of Omnivores, she’s a teenager serving a life sentence of hard domestic labour on L.A.’s outskirts. Her mother’s not so bad, she’s merely bald and bedridden. Father, Bill, is a millionaire, massive and malevolent, who nurses delusions of – well, of just about everything, from Godliness on down. Animals die in the name of a particularly crooked branch of science he’s invented; he stockpiles weapons (his guns all have names) and declares his independence from the United States.

He’s swallowed Estee’s life whole; she never goes out and, as Bill’s unwilling apprentice, she’s forced to fatally harass – and sometimes to eat – insects and animals that her father brings home. “Dear Lord,” she says at bedside prayer, “I am under strange government. There are devils here who masquerade as saints. And they are clearly insane.” Pressed into servitude, she tries where she can to sabotage Bill’s regime while she makes plans for escape. In this first half of the novel, Estee is a marvellously compelling character: shrewd, ahead of her time, witty and subversive.

She doesn’t stay that way, because halfway along, Omnivores shifts out of Bill’s crazy camp to Los Angeles proper. It almost feels like another novel here, a darker one by several shades. Estee escapes, but to what? The embrace of Pete Magnus, a slick real estate agent who likes the cut of Estee’s million-dollar inheritance; a sickened city that, in its way, is as demoralizing as anything Bill ever perpetrated. Out in unfamiliar California, Estee draws back into herself and takes notes. She hasn’t escaped Bill, really, his skewed scientific imperatives haunt her still, and he shows up in ugly, hungry spirit when she gives birth to a son with monstrous appetites.

Omnivores announces Lydia Millet as an antic new talent – you just may not have the stomach for lunch after reading it.