Lydia Millet's new novel, "Mermaids in Paradise" (W.W. Norton: 290 pp., $25.95), operates on a variety of levels, from parody to romance to (in its own way) oddball thriller, tracing a couple on their honeymoon who get embroiled in high-stakes drama after they discover actual mermaids swimming off a tropical reef.
And yet, Millet suggests by phone from Tucson, where she lives, "it's really a conventional novel, a story about the evolution of a personality." Like its narrator, Deb, a young woman from Southern California whose chirpy good cheer masks a hidden toughness, the book is sneaky in its depths.
"That superficiality is meant to be there," Millet explains. "It's an important part of the character. But it isn't all of her. I like to start with the social self and then go further into the mind."
What Millet's getting at is voice, which, she believes, has a lot to do with "how we present ourselves." Her own is rich and throaty, punctuated at intervals by hearty laughter.
"I like to amuse myself," she admits. "Everyone desires to laugh sometimes, and I want to make that available. There has to be space for play in literature. We all need some breathing room." As for what this means, Millet elaborates: "A serious book, for me, is like writing in a room, but this is more like writing at a party, where I've had something to drink. It's a social as opposed to a private gesture. It's a friendly act to write a lighthearted book."
Such a description applies to "Mermaids in Paradise," although the novel is also more than that. Broken into four sections, it opens by introducing Deb and her gamer-/extreme-sports-loving fiancé Chip, who longs for a Middle American authenticity, despite having no desire to visit Middle America itself.
"[H]onest Middle America," Deb informs us, "… is now threatened by a growing subculture … made of people who believe that fossils are a trick. These people are suspicious of biology and mortally offended by an ape. Also they're angry about it. … On the one hand moral fiber, possibly, but on the other hand madness."
Coming as it does at the beginning of the book, the passage hints at some of the tensions, the nuances, that exist below the surface, while also playing up the ironies. "I love irony," Millet enthuses — although in the next breath, she warns that it is not enough. "Too often," she goes on, "we take refuge in the amoral position of deep irony. It's a powerful force in bourgeois culture but ultimately to our detriment."
This is the point (or one of them) of Chip's heartland fantasy, although he's a naïf compared with Deb's best friend, Gina, a self-proclaimed "failed academic" whose affect is one of disconnected mockery. "Gina is charming," Millet says, "but she takes the Fifth when it comes to anything serious, which is a moral failing on her part." That's the novel's edge, to hold everyone accountable while exposing the contradictions of the culture we have built.
"When I was younger," Millet recalls, "I wasn't interested in those complexities, which is a problem with my early books." She's referring to her first novel, "Omnivores" (1996), in which a girl is mistreated, in bizarrely escalating ways, by her parents, or its 2000 follow-up, "George Bush, Dark Prince of Love," about a woman obsessed with the former president. "It was like shooting fish in a barrel," she says, "but it's not OK to be facile. Snark describes a cynical position, and I'm not interested in that."
What does interest Millet is satire, although she acknowledges the difficulty of satirizing a society that seems constantly to satirize itself. "We're a bit inured to satire at this point because we're surrounded by it," she declares, citing Internet haters, virtual reality and "the seductive lifestyle choices of the privileged," all of which mark "Mermaids in Paradise."
In that sense, the book is "not straight satire; it can't be. It's necessary to mediate between what is realistic and what is cartoonish." That's why the mermaids, mythical though they may be, are also rendered realistically, with bad teeth ("No dentists in the sea," Chip conjectures. "No underwater dentistry") and "the features of an actual person … the nose … a little wide and flat, the lips a little thin."
Mermaids, Millet explains, "are distinct from other mythic figures in that they have fewer abilities. They're handicapped. They can't go on land without giving up their voices, their tails, themselves. They're subjugated; what can they do? Sing, sit on rocks uncomfortably. They are sex symbols with their feet tied together, beautiful but powerless."
That interplay — between what they are and what we wish they were, not to mention their inability to defend themselves — gives "Mermaids in Paradise" the quality of a parable, a cautionary tale about what happens when we intercede, even with the best intentions, in the natural world.
Such concerns have long inspired Millet's writing; her 2005 novel "Oh Pure and Radiant Heart" revolves around the fallout, metaphorical and otherwise, of the first atomic bomb test, while her astonishing trilogy — "How the Dead Dream," "Ghost Lights" and "Magnificence" — addresses extinction, mortality, endangered species on both the grandest and most intimate scales. We are all endangered, these books tell us, by virtue of the fact that we are living, but even more, perhaps, because of the easily corrupted textures of our hearts.
"I worry," Millet says, "about the very pernicious way we elevate and separate ourselves from other beasts, the way we rationalize our comfort and ease, our worship of the self, as healthy. It's enticing, but with a terrible taint of evil. That's why Ebola is so horrifying to us: How dare it take us down? We put ourselves above nature."
On the one hand, these thoughts are a matter of advocacy; Millet has worked as a staff writer at Tucson's Center for Biological Diversity since 1999. But equally important is how they animate her fiction, despite what she calls the "taboo" of a writer slipping into politics.
"I used to be afraid to write about these things," Millet says, "but as I get older it seems cowardly to avoid them. I used to try to write around the edges, but now I try to walk a more direct line."
Lydia Millet reading with Jonathan Lethem
Where: Skylight Books, 1818 N. Vermont Ave., Los Angeles
When: 7:30 p.m. Nov. 13