The reunion apocalypse: a new novel from Lydia Millet.
A Children’s Bible: A Novel, by Lydia Millet, W. W. Norton, 224 pages, $25.95
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How did Lydia Millet know? “Diseases are migrating fast these days,” a character warns in the middle of her eleventh novel, A Children’s Bible. “Look at the bats.” It’s just one of many moments in these pages that remind us of the porous boundary between literature and life. I’m not suggesting that Millet’s book in any way foresees the current catastrophe, or even that they are aligned. Narrative is not predictive but reflective, after all. Still, fiction remains, at heart, a temporal medium—unfolding through time as it is written, and through a different line of time as it is read—which means that the circumstances in which we encounter it can’t help but color our response. How do we read now? It is impossible to engage with this or, really, any book without asking this question of ourselves.
Such a dynamic becomes particularly pointed in regard to A Children’s Bible because it is a novel of apocalypse. Narrated by a teenager named Evie, the book is set in a time much like the present and begins at a large summer house on the East Coast. Evie and her parents have come to this place with several other families. “The parents,” she explains, “had been close in college but hadn’t gotten together as a group since then. Until they picked this season for their offensively long reunion. One had been heard to say: ‘Our last hurrah.’ It sounded like bad acting in a stupid play.”
Evie is not alone in her disdain for the grown-ups; from the outset, she and the other kids—teens mostly, with a few young ones, including her beloved brother Jack—construct a society apart. Their most pressing desire is to keep their parents at a distance, which turns out to be easily accomplished, since the elders pay attention to their own needs and little else. “Besides drinking,” Millet writes, savagely lampooning them, “money was the one thing they were dead serious about.” Meanwhile, a Category 4 hurricane approaches, one component in a climate cataclysm the parents are ill-equipped to handle, leaving their children, as ever, to fend for themselves. “They shamed us,” Evie acknowledges, with more than a whisper of resignation. “They were a cautionary tale.”
Millet, of course, has long been a cautionary writer. Her 2016 novel Sweet Lamb of Heaven involves a mother on the run from her ex-husband, a right-wing opportunist campaigning for elective office—although the real power of the book resides in the way she spins this scenario into a saga of existential risk. A related sensibility motivates Mermaids in Paradise (2014), in which a newlywed catches sight of a school of mermaids while scuba diving on her honeymoon. (The discovery leads to predictably troublesome results.) In part, such patterns reflect the author’s satirical perspective; in part, her appreciation of tenuousness. But even more, I’d argue, they grow out of her grounding in both fiction and environmental action: since 1999, Millet has worked as a staff writer for the Center for Biological Diversity. That balance (or better: tension) marks what I think of as her extinction trilogy, three novels (How the Dead Dream, Ghost Lights, and Magnificence) published between 2008 and 2012, dealing with extinction, climate change, endangered species. “In an instant,” Millet observes in the last of those books, “the whole of existence could go from familiar to alien; all it took was one event in your personal life.” The line could be an epigraph for A Children’s Bible, which operates on the edge of such an event.
For Evie and her compatriots, the disruption of the storm is not merely physical, although that is part of it, as well. They leave their parents and retreat to a farm further inland, where, in the company of a loose cohort of others, they seek to ride out the disorder and the disarray. “Out there,” Evie confides, “beyond our field of view, the options were shrinking. Choices were being removed.” Isolated in the summer house, many of the parents become afflicted with dengue fever; when one, a mother—who, as it happens, is also pregnant—makes the journey to the farm to see her daughter, she dies in childbirth. This is among the most affecting scenes in the novel, not because it is particularly emotional, but because it is not. “The baby wailed,” Evie tells us. “That was how Sukey got a sister. But her mother wouldn’t stop bleeding. And so her mother died.” In its matter-of-factness, its silence even, the language tells us what the narrator cannot yet: that in the midst of the crisis, we have reached the point where resistance or denial is no longer possible, where we must accept what happens if we don’t want to be subsumed by loss and grief.
And isn’t that where we are also, in this moment of contagion and despair? “My mother’s habitat had been the university,” Evie recalls, “her articles full of long words and the names of other scholars.” When that habitat collapsed, she “had no familiar terrain. No map. No equipment. No tools.” For a writer and a teacher, that’s a particularly bracing sequence. All the same, it’s essential that we recognize what Millet is addressing, which is more than extinction, but adaptation, as well. She makes this clear in the final chapter, as Evie cares for Jack, who has spent the novel protecting endangered animals. “What happens at the end?” he asks, and the question resonates—not just for these characters, but for all of us. Isn’t this what we are asking? Isn’t this what we would like to know?
If Millet is too rigorous to give a definitive answer, she is also sharp-eyed enough to take a longer view. “Slowness, I bet,” Evie says. “New kinds of animals evolve. Some other creatures come and live here, like we did. And all the old beautiful things will still be in the air. Invisible but there.” It’s a stunning image of reconciliation, tough but also tender, and in its way, it reframes the apocalypse. What else do we have except this instant? Extinction looms for everyone. “Wait,” Evie asserts. “Why are we always complaining? We get to be alive.”
David L. Ulin is the author of Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles, which was shortlisted for the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay. A 2015 Guggenheim Fellow, he is the former book editor and book critic of the Los Angeles Times.