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Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Lydia Millet: "Mermaids in Paradise"

Author:  Lydia Millet
Title:  Mermaids in Paradise 
Plot Type:   Romantic, Satirical Fantasy
Publisher:  W. W. Norton & Co.  (11/2014)   

     Talk about strange bedfellows! Lydia Millet, author of darkly humorous fiction, and Mike Huckabee, conservative  presidential contender, both divide our Red/Blue society into two widely divergent halves. Huckabee sees Americans as living in either "Bubba-ville" or "Bubble-ville" (and he definitely prefers the green-tomato-eating Bubbas). Millet's heroine splits the citizenry between ironic, pragmatic red-staters and stout-hearted Heartlanders living in fly-over territory. In the opinions of both writers, the members of the two disparate groups peer at one another through such distorted lenses that they can barely discern each other's humanity. It's as if the groups were in adjoining cages in a zoo, each scrutinizing the other and assigning them cultural traits based entirely on social media posts, Fox News, the New York Times, and Hollywood movies. Members of the two groups never truly interact, but each side has extremely strong, mostly negative, opinions about the other side.

     As the book opens, Millet's California-girl heroine, Deb, is on the verge of marrying her California boyfriend, and she frequently finds herself torn between the opposing world-views of her fiancé, Chip, and her best friend, Gina. Chip is a "scatter-shot, arbitrary extrovert" and a dedicated gamer whose dearest wish is to meet some Heartland people, whom he admires from an uninformed distance for their pioneer spirit and moral fiber. "To hear Chip talk, you'd think every Nebraskan male knows how to put a horseshoe on a mule. They know how to bring both grain from dirt. They get what happens to that brought-forth grain, the steps before the cheerios. The women knit long underwear and are adept at fruit canning." Chip doesn't necessarily want to go into the Heartland; he just wants to meet one or two Heartlanders on neutral ground. Deb's best friend, Gina, is the complete opposite of Chip. Gina believes in sharply pointed irony, seeing the worst in every situation and every new person she meets. To Gina, "the stink of earnestness is worse than rancid milk….Everything's performance art with her, she lives in a world of irony. If a gesture's not ironic, why make it at all…" When Chip suggests a honeymoon cruise, Deb  slips into Gina's mindset, envisioning obese Heartland people "wearing flashy Day-Glo clothes." Deb also worries about the Heartland's "non-subculture…which is made of people who believe that fossils are a trick" and "are suspicious of biology and mortally offended by an ape." 

     Generally, Deb finds herself in the middle. "Chip and Gina were angel and devil on my shoulders, basically, and there were things I loved about them both." Chip's earnest friendliness and openness are easy and attractive, but sometimes wrong. Gina's judgment and us-or-them mentality are wearing, but sometimes convenient and good for a condescending giggle. As Deb makes her way through a very familiar series of wedding-related formalities, she changes her viewpoint multiple times, sometimes following Chip down the path of brotherly love, but sometimes allowing herself to be drawn into Gina's darkly ironic perspective.

     The first section of the book (entitled "Newlyweds") lampoons in hilarious detail the planning of the wedding and all of its accompanying rituals: the bachelor party, the bachelorette party, the rehearsal dinner, and the planning of the honeymoon, not to mention the wedding and the reception. Millet uses this section to introduce her main characters, and she sometimes goes overboard with her sardonic take on all of the hurdles that our culture forces brides and grooms to leap over before they are considered properly wed. Unfortunately, this section goes on slightly too long, causing the story to drag just a bit in the early chapters.

     In the next two sections ("Honeymoon" and "The Murder Mystery"), Millet adds a dark, but comical, mystery to the mix. Deb and Chip head off to the British Virgin Islands on their honeymoon where they meet some actual Heartlanders as well as a motley crew of other cultural types, including a marine biologist who studies parrot fish, a pair of New Age vegans, an eccentric ex-Navy SEAL who loves explosives, a Japanese VJ hipster, and a surfer dude. During a dive with Nancy, the biologist, Deb and Chip see real, live mermaids swimming around a reef just off the coast of their expensive resort. That night, Nancy dies in a bathtub drowning and the videotape of the mermaids goes missing. Was is an accident? Or murder? Immediately, the resort officials sweep in to market the mermaids in a greedy money-making scheme. At this point the pace rapidly accelerates and farcical adventures ensue. The final section ("Glorious Revolution") resolves the mystery and twists the novel around to its astounding and unsettling ending. (PLEASE, I'm begging you, don't peek at the ending before you read the book. You'll hate yourself if you do.)

     Although the murder mystery is entertaining, in a TV-dramedy kind of way, it is Millet's layered analysis of American culture that truly made the book compelling and memorable for me. Deb is a skeptical, opinionated, insightful young woman with limited real-world experience outside of coastal California. She changes her stance on issues by rationalizing her way from one side to another (just as most people do, except for those on the left or right fringe). Particularly fascinating is the way she sums up a truth about modern culture in a humorous discussion of how Americans have changed their view of crime-solving. "People didn't believe in a lone sleuth these days; they didn't believe one man could solve a crime. Or one woman, either." The hard-boiled private detectives of old "had been replaced by highly efficient teams of police officers with integrity, brilliant forensics specialists, earnest lawyers, and super-efficient computers. It doesn't matter to the TV-watching public that in real life America has basically none of the above."

     Late in the book, when the religious hard-liners of the Heartland hear about the mermaids through Tweets and declare them to be offspring of Satan or the consequences of bestiality (or worse), Deb takes a look at the flood of hatred on social media and worries about virtual blood lust. "The virtual world was even worse than the real one, when it came to humanity. To look at screens like these, you'd think there was nothing left of us but a pile of pixilated ash. We were a roiling mass of opinion, most of it mean. Here, we sat at civilization's technological peak, and what we chose to do on that shining pinnacle was hate each other's guts."

     Millet has created a complex, layered story that is both entertaining and thought-provoking. Deb is an every-woman American of a certain type who tries her best to strike a balance between blind optimism and "bulletproof" irony, particularly when she realizes that her best friend's ironic stance is really a shield against real, often painful, emotion. Although Deb's quirky fellow travelers sometimes come close to being stereotypes, they all have their moments of unexpected strength and insight. For me, this was an intriguing reading experience, particularly since I read the book just a few days after watching a TV interview in which Mike Huckabee touted his new Bubba/Bubble book. No matter which cultural side you are a part of, prepare for a few zings because Millet has a tart take on a number of groups within American society. Or...if you hate cultural analysis, you can just read this book as a loopy romantic fantasy about mermaids in the Caribbean and the miracles of nature. Either way, this is a terrific novel and I recommend it.

     Click HERE to go to this book's page to read or listen to an excerpt by clicking either on the cover art or the "Listen" icon.

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