It’s no surprise that HGTV now rivals CNN for the most cable viewers, catering to our every anxiety while providing happy endings. The network masterfully reinforces the home as the simulacra of personal identity, one in need of continual renovation and updates, of adding “pops of color” to convey character. The designers and Realtors — polished and armed with endless advice on what to hide and accentuate — facilitate in making the dreams of home equate with personal success.
Lydia Millet’s collection “Fight No More” is an antidote to these confectionary narratives, focusing on the fraught and intense interior lives of those inhabiting homes across the prime real estate landscape of Los Angeles.
In these stories, people have to sell their houses because of divorce, old age, financial trouble, a tragic death and possible phantoms. The homeowners’ dreams have fallen apart, and their psyches have fractured and frayed, vulnerable to mudslides, fault lines and fires, much like the expensive houses they occupy.
One of the central characters is Nina, a Realtor who navigates the bizarre concerns of her clients: one keeps vampire blood in her freezer, another brings his mistress to vet his future house with his fiancée, another purposefully masturbates while the potential buyers tour.
Almost all of the characters suffer acutely sharp forms of estrangement and alienation — finding refuge in some combination of online porn, reality television, marijuana, self-help, sex and secrets. Millet, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, has waded into these territories before in her books such as “Love in Infant Monkeys” (2009) and “Mermaids in Paradise” (2014).
In the new collection’s short story “Libertines,” Nina prepares to show a $2.8-million house to someone whispered to be “an African leader,” possibly a dictator, whose assistant has asked “not to address him directly.” Little seems to faze Nina, who has cultivated an attitude of unwavering, Ambien-like detachment. Ironically, while the burden of presentation and staging falls firmly on her lap, potential buyers seem to relish in abandoning any sense of propriety when they enter a home that’s for sale. Men, especially older men, are libertines throughout and treated by Millet and her female characters with a measured disgust. Nina recalls: “She’d had clients who moved things around, who ate the food out of strangers’ refrigerators. One guy had eaten a whole pint of ice cream while she was showing his wife a property’s backyard. Just took it out of the sellers’ freezer, sat down at the kitchen island and spooned it all up. When she and the wife came back in he was chucking the empty container into the sink.” As if to ask, Who does that? the narrator then emphasizes, “Not the garbage. The sink.”
In “Bird-Headed Monster” (the title taken from an image in Hieronymus Bosch’s painting “The Garden of Earthly Delights”), Millet reveals the codependent tonic of arrogance, wastefulness and unregulated wealth. The woman looking at a house on behalf of her boss and so-called boyfriend haughtily reveals that no matter the mint condition of the Sub-Zero refrigerator and hundred-thousand-dollar range, “‘Rand’s over the whole brushed-stainless deal. He wants slate. We’d have to replace it all. And he hates white-marble countertops. He says they’re too nineties.” Once she learns that the house is not meant for her after all and is comforted with a glass of water, she remembers “the parasites. Rand said there were parasites in tap water. Poor people drank it and it gave them stomach worms; the worms ate all their food and made them lazy, so then they had to ask the government for handouts. He always had Mercedes stock the fridge with dozens of single-serving bottles of glacier water. Glacier water didn’t have parasites, because it came from ice and parasites didn’t enjoy ice.” In showing how the rich rely on “lazy” people to do the labor that makes their lives, particularly at home, possible, Millet hones in on an audacious and laughable incongruity.
Jem, one of the young male protagonists, learns about the myth of fairness quickly, wryly observing that his father left him and his mother to father a child a with a twentysomething former stripper: “life went on. Actually, it could be funny to watch his … personality play out. Like, comedy. If you put yourself outside it like you were watching a movie, then … it could really crack you up.”
However, the men in this collection are not always easy to laugh at; they are mostly weak, with an indelible capacity for cruelty and violence. They are far less empathetic than most of the women — who despite the hands they are dealt are self-determined, brazen and able to carve a space for themselves in less than optimal contexts.
In “Stockholm,” Millet introduces us to Lexie, a young woman who has fled the home where her stepfather, who dotes on her mother, had been molesting her. Millet doesn’t portray Lexie as either victim or heroine; she is terrified, brave, anxious and hopeful in creating a new life for herself. In the following story, “I Can’t Go On,” Millet adopts the perspective of the stepfather — who has kept a “silent promise” to himself to wait for his stepdaughter to become 16 — when “girls turned into women” — to assault and terrorize her. Millet is uncompromising in portraying how he adopts a sanctimonious narrative to do what he wants with impunity. As a female retired professor of fascist history articulates about the limitations of men: “there was a chronic gap between what they should be and what they were capable of being.”
This former professor, a survivor of the Holocaust and gulags, is one of the collection’s highlights. Forced by ailing health to leave her beloved home and move in with her son and his new young wife, she has a sly sense of humor and offers damning reflections about her son. “It had been vital, at first, that he be sheltered, as her sister hadn’t been. Only after a while it seemed to her that, living in plenty and in peace, he should be fine. Yet he was not. There were totalitarians always ascendant. Fools and demagogues. And her son would not lift a hand against them.”
The collection is linked through characters that reappear (as relatives, friends, lovers) as the book progresses, showing the ways in which we are living in simultaneous dimensions of pain, betrayal and forgetting. Yet as bleak as their situations may get, there remains a thread of dark humor.
In a 2014 conversation with the writer Jenny Offill at Salon.com, she discussed the role of humor in her work. “Maybe humor isn’t felt to indicate a genuine commitment to looking smart,” Millet said. “I’ve puzzled over the divide between how funny vs. ‘serious’ literary books are received, at least here in the United States. Can it be as simple as, the literary establishment can’t easily interpret humor as having a particular message, so it tends to discount humor categorically?” Just because we can be made to laugh doesn’t mean it’s not dead serious.
Leah Mirakhor is a writer. She teaches at Yale University.
W.W. Norton: 224 pp., $24.95