Fall Arts: Lydia Millet Turns the IRS Literary


There’s no typical Lydia Millet book. Oh Pure and Radiant Heart (2006) resurrected physicists Oppenheimer, Fermi, and Szilárd of Manhattan Project fame, while Everyone’s Pretty (2005) took us into the offices of a pornographer inspired by Larry Flynt, for whom Millet once worked. My Happy Life (2002) locked us in a mental institution with a hapless innocent, and the Pulitzer-nominated story collection Love in Infant Monkeys (2009) pitted celebrities against animals. Her latest novel, Ghost Lights, the second in a trilogy that includes the acclaimed How the Dead Dream (2008), concerns Hal, a cuckolded IRS agent who journeys to find his wife’s employer, T., a real estate developer who disappeared while searching for an endangered Central American animal. Meanwhile, Hal has his own transformative encounter with a married German tourist named Gretel. When we caught up with Millet, she had just endangered her own eyeball, accidentally scratching her cornea with the point of one of those plastic squares one finds attached to sunglasses in drugstores. We thought she should see a doctor first, but she gritted her teeth and spoke to us anyway.

Hal is an IRS agent. What do you like about him? I like everything about Hal. I have always had a great fondness for the IRS. They’re one of the least popular agencies of the American government. And they do such yeomanlike work. It’s typical of our national character that we deride them. I hadn’t read the David Foster Wallace book [The Pale King], but it’s much more seriously detailed in terms of its exploration of U.S. tax law.

That’s a dubious endorsement, I guess. Mine is just a toe in the water of IRS culture, a fleeting allusion, but I thought it was funny there was more than one book featuring an IRS protagonist in the same year. I wrote this book long before the Tea Party was prominent, so I didn’t know the extent to which taxation would be obsessing our country when it came out.

Hal discovers that his wife is having an affair. What are your personal views on infidelity? Well, you know, the third book in this trilogy, Magnificent, coming in 2012, will be all about Susan’s [Hal’s wife] chronic infidelity. The notion of faithfulness in monogamy is complex, and it’s one that we often bear an oversimplified relationship to in our culture.

Like T., do you ever want to go live in the wilderness? I do periodically have fantasies about escaping to Hawaii, although I have never been to Hawaii. I think it’s on a purely symbolic level. I would hate to do without my TiVo and my ciabatta rolls from Trader Joe’s. I’m very pleased by certain bourgeois aspects of my life that would not be available if I lived on a tropical island, but I’ve always been attracted to utopian visions.

What is the significance of the title? “Ghost lights” refer to these chimerical vapors, swamp gases, and shapes people have seen shimmering over wetlands to which they attribute supernatural qualities. It [doesn’t refer to] anything obvious in the text. But it wouldn’t be as appealing to call it Swamp Gas.

Ghost Lights by Lydia Millet, October,W.W. Norton & Company, 256 pp., $24.95