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Post Road Magazine #32

On Sweet Lamb of Heaven (And Really All of Lydia Millet's Books)

Jessica Lee Richardson

I wrote my first ever fan letter to Lydia Millet after readingHow the Dead Dream, Oh Pure and Radiant Heart, and then My Happy Life back to back in 2008 (wonderful books, all). Then the utterly unexpected happened. She wrote me back. She changed the course of my life by writing back. Among other kindnesses, she recommended I apply to the University of Alabama for an MFA. This was one of the best decisions I ever made, and it led to me meeting people I love and to me having a book out, too. After its publication I received a long letter from a fan, and of course, I wrote her back. A small extension of self can act on the world profoundly, I'd learned.

So I may be writing about Lydia Millet with some bias. But screw it, this is a recommendation, and I held that bias from her books before I ever internet-met her, or real-life met her years later on a college campus where after her talk attendees got high on a lavish slab of stone.

I just looked back on those early emails knowing I was going to write about Millet's new book, Sweet Lamb of Heaven. I expected some cringe factor, and it was there, but only in the recognition of my transparent desperation to be seen/not be seen by her, rather than in what I said about her writing. I just finished Sweet Lamb of Heaven and I stand by this assessment I made back then:

I can't tell if its meaning is ultimately political - we are taught to dociley accept
our lot in life no matter how insane and unjust it is, and we need to
learn to stand up for ourselves - or - if its meaning is spiritual,
acceptance leads to transcendence no matter where you find yourself,
and we would do well to really notice the beauty and quit our whining.
Or if it's a paradoxical combo, or neither. I like that I can't
tell, therein lies the breathing…The poetry
of your images and language have their own weight, beyond what their
meaning is, that speak to the body and its dreaming the way a moral
prescription couldn't ever.

I was talking about My Happy Life, but in some ways I could just as well have been talking about Sweet Lamb of Heaven, though they are very different books. Perhaps it's because I was being vague. I didn't have an MFA yet! But I think it's that Lydia Millet has a thing.

See? I'm not vague anymore. Cured.

Here is the thing, this was eight years ago. Since then Millet has authored a slew of new works, won a Guggenheim, and been a Pulitzer Prize Finalist, but I am still shocked by how many avid readers I recommend her books to who don't know her work.

That odd obscurity may be changing with this latest book. I mean, Vogue reviewed it. There is a reason Vogue reviewed it. It's a compulsively readable page-turner. It's delicious. But Millet has not abandoned her experimental literary roots. She's just packaged them to be consumable. In a book that is in part about the sale of ideas, this entertaining, popcorn popping construct is form marrying content at its finest. It's that rare treasure that both entertains and engages the reader in a full throttle artistic encounter.

The story itself is simple, except of course it isn't. A woman escapes an emotionally abusive ex-husband and attempts to shield her daughter from him. A little backstory: the woman, who is not otherwise mentally different, heard voices for the first year of her daughter's life—a kind of stream of disparate but intelligent language that stopped when her daughter started speaking. Once the pair escape, the sociopathic husband, running for office and needing his family beside him as a campaign prop, seems to have almost superhuman abilities to track them and get into his ex-wife's head.

Written plainly like that, the plot seems almost absurd. It is one of Millet's much lauded gifts that she pulls off plots that seem like they may fall apart at any moment. Somehow they don't fall apart. Somehow in the end, they are not so absurd, or they are, but they are precise reflections of absurdities we are living. They are only casting colorful shading on a vision we have already accepted, so that we can see its lines. I mean, thematically, does the above plot description not sound a little like the experience of living in the cacophony of an ad-addled capitalist patriarchy?

Still, I thought hard about how Millet builds such trust on the story level while reading this book. (And there have been stranger premises than this in her books. In Oh Pure and Radiant Heart, famous nuclear physicists time travel and go on a road trip.) At one point I thought I was clever and had pinned it down. "Oh!" I raised my mental hand. "She makes the narrator as skeptical of events as we readers are to disarm us." But no. I recalled my fan letter-inspiring encounter with My Happy Life. That protagonist was the opposite. She took everything that came her way. She was an innocent.

When I got toward the end of Sweet Lamb of Heaven and I could feel with my hands that there were only about twenty pages left, I thought, oh, no. This is going to be another trilogy. There's no way she can resolve all of this!

But she did.

In fact the ending did that satisfying, fist to the heart, frozen axe, thinking about it for days, thing.

The best I can come up with on how she holds these plots together is that the tension lies in the why as much as the what. Her answers quiver with the honesty of her questions.

The lines I thought to include as illustrations are stunners, but I felt guilty plucking them from their contextual plumage fan. I'll drop this one here, though:

"True language is the deep magic. As old as time. God of the hills and water. God of the sun and trees."

The difficulty of excision is another of the book's gifts. It's full of aphorisms that could stand on their own, absolutely. See above. But they are cascaded toward contextually so that arriving on each tidbit of wisdom is an earned experience, a thrilling rise in the voice I learn to hear that is this book. It would cheapen these moments to pull them out of the wave of language they're riding. I will confess. I closed my eyes and actually said "thank you" several times at these rhythmic crests.

I suspect the reason it's hard to pin down Millet's craft is linked to this tight weave of language and effect. Also, how funny she is. How kind. To distill her choices into a cache of repeatable tricks would turn me into a kind of Ned of language. (Ned is the politician who's after our narrator.) Better to just let it be wild.

We eventually have to let go of all the tricks anyway, once we know of them.

In an era of emphasis on good literary citizenship, where writers themselves often float books in lieu of publishing muscle, I wanted to choose a good literary citizen to recommend here at Post Road. There are so many champions who deserve it! Instead I chose the book I had just naturally loved and it worked out perfectly. Lydia Millet works for the Center for Biological Diversity and writes powerful op-eds for the New York Times in defense of wolves, land masses, ecologies, and even, sometimes, humans. She is a good actual citizen. Who challenges us to put our tricks down and to stare directly at what is before us. Who also quietly writes back to gushing young women as if they, too, are literary. And then, poof, they are. Hers is that rare and beautiful art form that carries abstraction into the living, breathing world.


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