The Rumpus Interview with Lydia Millet

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When asked why I publish what I publish, I often reply—I publish in order to understand why I published. Until a book goes out into the world to be engaged with, tussled with, confronted, loved, argued over, no-one, not even the guy who edited, packaged, pimped it out to the reader he hoped he’d help find for it, no-one really understands what it is.

This is most often crystallized in the form of a brilliant interview. So when Lydia Millet—a writer of whom I have said, and say here again, I’ll stake my career on this person—sent me part of an interview that she’d done to promote the publication in France of her novel Oh Pure & Radiant Heart, I read it and saw this had happened to me again, I’d rediscovered Lydia, reunderstood the work, reunderstood the effect of the work in the world. And immediately, though I was no longer Lydia’s publisher, I knew I should help find a place for this interview here in the US.

Before leaving Soft Skull in March of this year, I’d acquired Lydia’s story collection Love in Infant Monkeys [Read The Rumpus Review here]. It published earlier this month. While this interview, conducted by French journalist Olivier Lamm, only touches on that collection, and focuses on books from 2005 and 2008, Millet’s stylistic, philosophical, and political concerns are of such breadth and such passion that their currency is as close to eternal as any of us can rely on. We need to just look around ourselves to see how crucial Lydia’s vision is.

-Richard Nash

The Rumpus: First of all, I’d very much like to know how and when you had the idea for Oh Pure ‘s plot? Was it a “theoretical” affair before it was a literary one, or the contrary? Also, were you aware of David Carkeet’s I Been There Before and German writer Arno Schmidt’s Goethe et un de ses admirateurs (I’m not sure if the latter was translated in English) – other literary works that begin with similar returns from the grave of great, exemplary, symbolical indiviuals  (in the cases of these two novels, Mark Twain and Goethe)?

Lydia Millet: At the risk of exposing a typically American ignorance of European letters, absolutely not. (In fact I love many European writers but I know neither of these books.) The idea was simple: explore the idea of the nuclear sublime through character and narrative. Also, explore the minds that created the bomb. And I cobbled those impulses together.

Rumpus: What drew you most specifically to these three “gentlemen”? Is it the paradox of three non “warlike men” building the greatest tool of destruction of all times out of “love”?

Millet: I read about many of the Manhattan Project scientists, combing through piles of biographies to find the ones who most fascinated me. Oppenheimer was a given, but Szilard isn’t as famous as he should be and so I had to discover him, with all his humor and brilliance and arrogance. (I even tried to read his terrible novel, which he was very proud of, but sadly I failed. I believe it was called Voice of the Dolphins.) And Fermi was famous, and to me at least something of a straight man, so he perfectly rounded out the trinity.

Rumpus: Would you say this literary trick of resurrecting important men into a fiction is a mere tool to produce  literary effects (for instance, the interesting “Persian Letters” effects of seeing our contemporary world from a new perspective) or a fantastic event to be read and appreciated as any other “reality effect” (I’m not sure you are familiar with Barthes’ effet de réel concept)? Or else: a necessity? A pretext?

Millet: The only Barthes I remember well is A Lover’s Discourse, which I loved and which meant a lot to me when I was younger and trying to get a grip on things like egotism and so-called romantic love. I’m sure I share that with many French adolescents. As far as the conceit goes, the transplanting of known figures into settings that were not their own — it’s all of what you say, and it can be a cheap gesture or it can be resonant. I don’t know about this reality effect. Isn’t putting famous dead men into a novel an act of reality avoidance? I don’t think it lends credibility, I think it actively works against credibility and therefore is, if anything, a millstone, technically. All science fiction gestures undermine credibility, and leave it up to tone and language to reestablish the suspension of disbelief. But they also seduce by their very fabulousness.

Rumpus: Similarly, we could say that the scientists actually resurrect in the reality of the book – any fiction is, first and foremost, the primal setting for a “what if?”. Are we allowed to see a commentary about the almighty power of literature? Is it any different manipulating the fictitious reincarnation of actual individuals that purely ficititious ones? For instance, it seems you had “fun” manipulating Szilard’s character (and I must say, the Szilard I saw talk on youtube seemed quite a different character). Is it intimidating reviving someone like Oppenheimer in words, flesh and behavior?

Millet: If you don’t have pretensions to journalism — and I don’t — then it’s not intimidating at all. These were my fantasy atom-bomb physicists, fictional versions of the imprints the real men left on culture, interpreted creatively, personally, idiosyncratically by someone who never knew them. You have a few signposts, a skeleton you can hang things on, with the facts of their lives, and then you grow your own flesh. I have no interest in faithfulness to the fact. I lie, I lie, I lie.

Rumpus: Would you call this novel a “realist” one? One phrase in the novel, “what is more real, the mundane or the sublime?”, seems somewhat enlightening on the matter.

Millet: I don’t know what realism means to you. I’m sorry – it’s such an abused term in my country. It means nothing anymore. People use “realistic” to mean, for instance, “good,” basically, though I am not one of these people, clearly. So I need a more specific definition for my answer to mean anything. What I can say is this is a straighter book, a less filtered or ironic book, in terms of voice, than most of mine. It’s more earnest, you might almost say.

Rumpus: What makes Ann’s character, a “quaint, humble librarian” and according to the narrative, not much more,  so exceptional that she dreams of Oppenheimer ? Is there a special link between her and the three scientists or are Ben and her merely convenient characters for the story to happen? Also, does the fact that she is a librarian and Ben a gardener mean that they live in some “periphery” of America?

Millet: I think they’re meant to be gentle people, symbols of a benign and somewhat passive aspect of American character that isn’t a part of our public persona anymore. There’s a woman who loves books, there’s a man who only desires to, as it were, “cultiver son jardin.” We have a reputation, as a country, for brashness, obnoxiousness, narcissism, indeed ignorance. And frankly there’s a lot of truth to that, in the statistical aggregate. In aggregate, we don’t enjoy, for instance, an education. But what isn’t as visible these days is a tradition of restraint and learnedness we also have, dating not only from the rigors of Puritanism but from a more generous and conscientious liberal theology whose tradition has lately been trampled and pulverized by the religious right. This restrained, understated American self struggles against the new media world, struggles against the world of materialism and consumerism. I wanted Ann and Ben to be part of an old-fashioned America, the America, say, of my New England grandparents or my Georgia grandfather, and in a sense of my father too, who was a quiet, well-mannered, nineteenth-century man. The America, in fact, of Oppenheimer.

Rumpus: What would be your definition of satire? Do you consider your novels, most notably Oh Pure and Everyone’s Pretty, as satires?

Millet: I see them called that, and Everyone’s Pretty is certainly closer. The label doesn’t bother me because I like satire; but of course it’s a fairly precise literary form, and my books don’t strictly conform. In my view they contain satirical gestures, but are not as pure and rigorous as true satire.  You know – true satire is Jonathan Swift; it’s A Modest Proposal. My books don’t have that tight, unified formal structure. They’re not homogenous but heterogeneous.

Rumpus: From the point of view of the three resurrected scientists, our present time is a “dystopia” come true. To what point would you yourself endorse this view on things?

Millet: Yes, we live in a dystopia. Some of us more than others.

Rumpus: Also, a recurring idea in your novels is that it is taking place after the end of History, after “the end has already come and gone (…) and here we are”. Could you expand further on that idea?

Millet: I think the Industrial Revolution was the beginning of the end. Much could be said about the apocalyptic tradition in writing; it’s not a new thing. And yet our time is peculiarly new, our moment on this earth, characterized overwhelmingly, statistically, factually, by new things, new people, new ways and the utter annihilation of the old. The crux of our situation—at least in the industrialized world, now—is that we live in sprawling, insane abundance, we live in a frenzy of activity, economic, artistic, technological, scientific, a great, accelerated efflorescence of knowledge and capacity, even, in a sense, of self-knowledge, which we have sometimes hoped would save us. And yet at the very same time we are viciously, doggedly killing the world. We live at the pinnacle of knowledge and the height of human energy—we have become Supermen—and also at the vanguard of the murderous army: with fantastic disregard we kill off our less powerful cultures, our less spoken languages, our less populous peoples. Languages are being driven extinct all the time, animals and plants are vanishing at up to 1,000 times the background rate. We kill off the beasts of the air, the land, and the sea. We kill the plants, the trees, indeed even the actual air. We are killing the atmosphere, even! That’s right, even the atmosphere, it turns out, is no match for us. We reach upward in our killing, we reach for the stars. No ambition, when it comes to killing, is too great for us. We are undoing all the work of creation as fast as we possibly can.

Finally, of course, because we cannot live in nothingness, we will end this sequence of triumphant victories over the rest of the world by obliterating ourselves.

And we do this in a great whooping war cry of desire, of certainty, of self-righteousness — we say we have the right to do it, the right to have and the right to kill. Having everything is our birthright. Killing everything is our birthright.

This isn’t an overstatement. This is just who we are.

Rumpus: As a consequence of that (and of other things), your works all glow with a strange light: they’re incredibly melancholic, rather than desperate, and revealing of a strong yet merciful critic of the human race as a whole (I’m thinking of Oppenheimer reading about Hiroshima and musing that “the bad acts of which people are capable have grown and swelled in magnitude through history”) Do you agree with this? Would you consider yourself a “melancholic” writer? (I must say as an example on that matter that reading How the Dead Dream at the end of last year was at the same time one of the most devastating and rewarding reading experiences I had in years).

Millet: Thank you. That’s a profound compliment. I think I am prone to great sadness and great joy in my writing and also my reading. I can be brought to tears quite easily by the work of others as well. And yet I do not like work that is depressing per se. There’s a yawning divide, for me, between sad or melancholic—both of which are beautiful—and depressing, which is just, well, depressing. Which has a flat affect and texture. My work has a lot to do with empathy and distance, often in simultaneity—but I think most work does, or at least most literary work that, for me as a reader, succeeds.

Rumpus: What about the sentence: “Faced with the end of history, people tend to ignore it”?

Millet: We do the work of denial effectively. Denial is our strategy for living, as mere individuals, in a massive social world headed for catastrophic collapse.

Rumpus: In all your novels, you express a strange fascination/repulsion for the decoys and follies of late capitalism – Oppenheimer uses the words “Money and a vast machine” in the novel – exemplified in Ann’s and Ben’s aghast incomprehension when confronted to the way of life of the middle-age Wall-Street couple Ben works for (“the world we all agree on, with its terrible gardens”), Oppenheimer strolling in Las Vegas, or, say, T. sucking on dimes in How the Dead Dream. More specifically, one sentence seems to summarize it: “She did not understand this (the inventors of the leveraged buyout).. It did not sound like “inventors of the player piano”. It did not sound like “inventors of the donut”".

Would you say it is a major theme in your work?

Millet: Yes.

Rumpus: To what extent do you think your novels (and most specifically Oh Pure and How the Dead Dream) are connected to the current state of the world, and, well, the USA? Do you consider your novels to be political ones (Oh Pure and How the Dead Dream seem to be echoing, in direct – the three scientists in Oh Pure are threatened by the Patriot Act – or undirect manner, the schemes and tricks of the Bush administration)?

They’re social and political, but still, I hope, chiefly philosophical. Chiefly about the large sweep of human instinct and experience rather than the day to day, but told, as novels must be, in that day-to-day time.

Rumpus: Similarly, quite a few of the historical data about the nuclear bomb end with dry, self-explanatory conclusions which reminded me of the complexly committed non-fiction works of W.T. Vollmann. Was it your intention to make a, say “politically involved” book about nuclear weapons? Or are nuclear weapons merely a symbol for a wider comment on the state of the modern world?

Millet: The weapons are of us, are our children. So an example of what we do, like music or paintings. Nothing is monolithic. We dream of monoliths but all our works are of a piece.

Rumpus: It seems a lot of your views on the contemporary world stem from your acute knowledge of wildlife and situation of endangered species. A few scenes and many references to wild animals in Oh Pure announce the central thematic of How the Dead Dream – the direct connection between our crave for accumulation, the financial world and the rupture between Mankind and Nature – most notably the resurrection of the whooping crane. Can you tell about the link between your work as a writer and you work at the Center for Biological Diversity? What about your forthcoming short stories collection, Love in Infant Monkeys?

Millet: My writing and my day job come from the same place: a love of the beasts and growths and forms of this stunning and irreplaceable world, a belief that humans are, in fact, not the sun around which the other planets revolve but mere planets themselves, which rotate ceaselessly around a flaming core of being they can’t understand.

To the extent that I do activism — I’m a writer and editor, not an activist; I’d love to be able to have bragging rights on that, but all I can say is that, in my particular job, I perform mostly minor technical tasks for those who do — I think our estrangement from the rest of the world, our myopia, the culture of self we’ve shaped is leading us into the fiery pit. I’m like a fire-and-brimstone preacher in that respect, I guess. I try to go easy on the actual preaching, however, so that people keep coming back. I mostly want to show how those flames leap, and what long, phantasmagoric shadows they may cast on the wall.

Rumpus: Would you say your views on mankind and modern civilization are influenced by your knowledge and views on wild life?  Do you see Man as “a child frantically trying to bring back to life (…) small unknowing animal(s) that it has killed in play”? Do you think, like T. in How the Dead Dream or Fermi, that our salvation lies with the salvation of “the world with its animals, its washed-out cold pink sunsets and dry arroyos, its lakes and rivers (…) the world that gives us such a soul as we have” ?

Millet: I think the legacy of humanism and monotheism has been pernicious in many powerful respects, even as, in some respects, it has also liberated us. It has erased our memory of our race, our deep memory. We are the dirt and grass; we are of the oceans.

Rumpus: You are quite an “isolated” literary figure in America. Are there still writers that you feel close to? Also, who were the writers that you grew up reading and whose work you’d say was “influential”? Eventually: you are being published by a remarkable independent publishing house, Soft Skull, Can you talk about it? Has anything changed since Richard Nash left ?

Millet: Of course. I adore Richard and I miss him terribly. I think he’s a brilliant publisher and a dear man.

Isolated—I like that! It sounds romantic, but lonely. I seem tragic.

I admit many of my inspirations have been European. I love Thomas Bernhard, I’ve loved Robert Walser, Beckett, Calvino, Virginia Woolf. I love single books by certain writers, Karel Capek’s War With the Newts or Elias Canetti’s great work Auto da Fe or Witold Gombrowicz’s excellent Cosmos and Pornografia. But also many, many Americans—Gilbert Sorrentino is a hero of mine, for instance, as is William Gaddis. Contemporary U.S. writers I love include Joy Williams and Lydia Davis; I just read brilliant books by Paul Harding and Robert Olmstead… I could go on, but lists are tedious so I won’t.

Rumpus: I’d really like to ask you again about Love In Infant Monkeys. First of all, there’s this artwork which seems to be echoing Andy Warhol’s artwork for the Velvet Underground’s first album and I’d like to know if it was intentional. Secondly, it’s your very first collection of short stories: is it a mere collection of short stories that were already published in the past, or is it thematic? How do you rely to the shorter form?

Millet: I didn’t design the cover, though I do like it. I think it was less an homage to Warhol than an homage to apes. Ah — but maybe they’re one and the same! The stories are pretty new, largely unread and thematically unified, all about famous people and their relationships with particular animals. So I can see how both Warhol and primate appetites might be design touchpoints.

Rumpus: What happened to Ghost Lights, that second part of this trilogy, which you announced some time ago?

Millet: It’s written, and so is the final novel in the trilogy, called Magnificence. They should come out next.

Rumpus: What would you say is the common denominator (if there’s any?) to all your novels? To what extent would you say “style” is essential to your writing, in regard to content? (I’m asking this because arguably, even though none of your novels are overtly experimental in form, it’s really your sentences and structures – most notably the appositions of historical data and the narrative in Oh Pure – that make them so unique and special).

Millet: I leave that to others. I know my obsessions, mostly. And style is, to some extent, like DNA — you can’t get away from it. It’s what separates artists from, basically, technical writers or writers of generic pulp, your Dean R. Koontzs or your John Grishams. So even though there’s variation, not only thematic but of voice and tone and texture, between my books I hope there’s also always a distinctive fingerprint on each of them.

Rumpus: You traveled in many places, including the Trinity site and Japan, before/while you were working Oh Pure. Why did you feel the need to go to these places? Was it for strictly documentary reasons, or was it necessary for your literary process?

Millet: Mostly the latter. I wanted to be in Hiroshima and Nagasaki before I wrote about them. Most of the place I write about I’ve been to or lived in — most, if not all.

Rumpus: You’re saying that you hope your novels are “chiefly philosophical”: do you believe fiction to be the best way to carry out ideas about, say, the world and mankind? I was at a Dave Eggers reading yesterday at the Shakespeare and Company bookshop near Notre-Dame, and he seemed quite uneasy when a woman asked him if he expected and hoped his books had an impact on the world (actually she used the neologism “to impact” which made him quiver) and made “a difference”. Of course, he had no idea. Do you believe that books of fiction can make “a difference”? (I’m asking precisely because your novels are heavily loaded with insightful remarks about the world that have to “make a difference” on the reader). Do you think they should?

Millet: Of course books affect the world. They affect individuals and individuals affect their surroundings and their culture. Books are not wars or new technology, but they reverberate, like everything else. Perhaps Eggers did not wish to be seen as an egoist and I can understand his embarrassment. The question is fundamentally embarrassing. You might as well ask: Are you handsome? Are you just too, too, too terribly sexy? I mean really, what’s the correct answer to that? If you say yes you’re an arrogant asshole. If you say no you’re falsely modest and therefore a big liar.

Rumpus: In France, you are being published by Lot49, a “thematic” collection which takes its name from Thomas Pynchon’s novel and gathers a supposedly coherent array of authors: Richard Powers, Joanna Scott, Brian Evenson, Ander Monson or Willam Gass. Do you see a pattern, there? Do you feel you’re part of it? Or in other words, to what extent would you rely to that ugly “postmodern” denominator? (I’m sorry to underline the fact that Oh Pure obviously starts with a postmodern pattern).

Millet: I’m certainly honored to be in the company of writers like William Gass — he was a hero of mine in my twenties. And I can see themes in that list, a certain analytical intelligence, for instance, a certain edginess. On the other hand I’ve never seen any similarity, for example, between my work and Pynchon’s. So mostly I think this particular collection is, like most of them, a subjective and largely personal gesture of organization. And I embrace and admire that gesture.

Rumpus: Have you read this famous book by physiologist/ethnologist/ornithologist Jared Diamond called Collapse, in which he analyzes a whole array of examples throughout History of civilizations which remained mysteriously blind even in the last stages of their own collapse? (I quite like the schematic example he uses of the man who uprooted the last tree on Easter Island).

Millet: I like Diamond, though I haven’t read the particular book. I do think we’re surrounded by blind spots — it’s a question of whether we check our mirrors in time.

Rumpus: Eventually, an obvious question: would you say your work is pessimistic, or optimistic in such a way that we may, in spite of our blindness in front of the “fiery pit”, find salvation somewhere? Do you still have faith that your work at the Center for Biological Diversity (and that of “similar” initiatives all around the world) will eventually lead to significant political actions in the USA and in other countries?

Millet: Optimistic, deeply hopeful. I’m full of hope, I have to be. I can’t believe all this loveliness will wink out.


Olivier Lamm is a French journalist, musician and repentant scholar. He is also a founding member of the Fric Frac Club, a reading collective interested in all things challenging and unusual in literature. More from this author →