Lydia Millet Wonders Why We’re Not Panicking More
The Author of A Children's Bible Talks to Kristin Iversen About
End Times, Smug Liberals, and Good Teens
“I have a terrible memory,” Lydia Millet told me. She said this, or some variation of it, maybe three times during our phone conversation on an afternoon in mid-April. I was in New York City, watching a mask-wearing crossing guard stand in front of the empty-for-weeks elementary school across the street from my apartment; she was at home in Arizona, looking out, she said, into her yard, “at the desert flowers, all spring-like, just waving in the wind.”
I believed Millet, of course, about having a terrible memory, and about not quite recalling what it was that first inspired her to write her latest book, A Children’s Bible. But, having just read the novel—a dark skewering of America’s comfortable elite set in the midst of an environmental apocalypse that captures perfectly both the terror and the tedium of large-scale disaster—I should have realized that Millet’s self-described spotty recollection of its genesis hardly mattered. A Children’s Bible feels less like something wholly imagined and born out of nowhere, and more like the urgent telling of an as-yet-unseen reality that was just now taking shape around us. In other words: Why does it matter if you can recall the past when it appears you have the ability to remember the future?
Lydia Millet is a reader’s author. This isn’t just because she’s prolific; although it does help that anyone lucky enough to just now be discovering Millet’s work will delight in learning that she has written over a dozen books in the last two decades, offering ample material in which to get lost. But also, readers love knowing things that nobody else knows, and Millet feels like the literary world’s best kept secret—as much, anyway, as an author who has been a finalist for the Pulitzer can be considered a secret. And just like there’s a visceral satisfaction in sharing deeply felt secrets, there’s a particular kind of pleasure that comes with mentioning Millet’s name to anyone else familiar with her work, and then spending the rest of your conversation comparing which among her books are your respective favorites: The novels or the stories? Those tackling climate change or the one about L.A.’s rapacious real estate scene? The unhinged parody about the one-term president or the unhinged parody about the pop icon shooting pheasants in Prada boots? And then there’s the one with the mermaids.
Part of the joy in diving deeply into Millet’s work is that it stirs up such questions. Her books are provocative in that rarest of ways: They feel fully free, unleashed from any understanding or expectation of what they’re supposed to be. Despite, or maybe because of, their wildness, their refusal to conform, Millet’s books remain accessible; her writing feels generous, like it’s opening up possibilities of new ways to think and to be—and, really, now is not the worst time to consider new ways of thinking and being.
“Maybe it’s trite to say, but you don’t feel freedom intensely unless you don’t have it,” Millet said to me, as we spoke about the banal exigencies that come with staying home all the time. “We don’t use freedom in the best ways when we have it. We tend to use it in tragic and ugly ways; we use freedom to do and use and consume however we desire.”“The culture that we have—the literary, intellectual culture—seems far less inclined than the scientific culture has been to grapple with what are profound existential questions that absolutely affect everything that we do.”
We hadn’t really been talking about the coronavirus pandemic—Millet said, “I don’t know that I’m going to say anything particularly brilliant on the subject of Covid-19”—but rather about the long sections of A Children’s Bible in which the characters are forced by environmental catastrophe and societal collapse to shelter-in-place. And yet, of course we were also talking about the pandemic, not only how it had been so quick and brutal in exposing the rampant social, racial, and economic inequalities in this country, but also the ways in which it revealed things that Millet has been exploring in her work as a writer and an environmental activist for years, things that indicate just how ill-prepared we are for the disaster at-hand, and any disasters still to come.
“I’ve felt astonished by our apparent inability to panic as a culture,” Millet told me, wondering over our country’s collective refusal to take climate change seriously. “Our sort of frozen, inarticulate, ambient smugness about everything. Our selfishness; the way we set our sights so defiantly on our personal matters to the exclusion of everything else.”
Millet’s astonishment is reserved mainly for America’s adults, the generations of decision-makers who have willfully ignored the looming specter of environmental collapse in favor of focusing on their own immediate needs. At 51, Millet might be part of the same generation as the parents in her novel, but she doesn’t share their predilection for ignoring climate change; she has a master’s degree in environmental policy from Duke University and has been involved with the Center for Biological Diversity, a non-profit organization that works toward protecting endangered species, for decades. She understands why young people are so angry about being ignored, about having no future.
“Before I had even heard of Greta Thunberg, I’d seen in my life the schismatic divide between generations about these things,” Millet said. “So I wanted to write about some kids who were disgusted by their parents, but were forced to be with them—in a mansion.”
A Children’s Bible begins as a fairy tale, in a now-lost Eden: “Once we lived in a summer country.” Piled into the still-spectacular home of former robber barons are a motley assortment of families, but the real tribal distinctions have nothing to do with blood, and everything to do with age. The kids—mostly teenagers, but some adolescents—are in one camp, the parents in another; the simmering contempt of the kids for their parents is met with, well, nothing. The parents are far too wrapped up in themselves, concerned with their own immediate pleasures, to care all that much that their children have disowned them.
No Eden lasts forever, if it ever really existed in the first place, and this one is doomed to fall in a storm of biblical proportions. There is a flood, there are animals saved in pairs, there is wandering in a desert of sorts; a child is born in a barn; there are angels. And there is ample evidence of how differently children and adults will react when threatened with extinction: The children fight back, as best they can. The parents give in. As Evie, the teenager narrating the novel, observes, these adults have long “insisted on denial as a tactic. Not science denial exactly—they were liberals. This was a denial of reality.”
There is an uncanny aspect to reading A Children’s Bible; it’s hard not to think, at least occasionally: What did Lydia Millet know and when did she know it? Because it can feel almost too incisive, a sharp-as-a-knife satire that cuts to the bone, and then keeps going all the way through. And no aspect of it feels more devastating than the depiction of all those dissolute adults, who see the walls of their paradise forming a crumbling prison around them, but are determined to do nothing about it other than take more drugs and become more self-centered, until their bodies are as sick as their souls, even as they seem convinced that all they have to do to endure the apocalypse is wait it out and pretend like everything is normal. It’s hard not to see them reflected in the people who, in the midst of the pandemic, attempt to maintain their routines as much as possible, look for ways to be ever-more productive, and continue living life as normal, just waiting for their favorite bars to reopen. The shape of these emergencies is different, but the insistence on prioritizing a standard of living that doesn’t make sense anymore is hauntingly similar.“Maybe it’s trite to say, but you don’t feel freedom intensely unless you don’t have it.”
“I mean, I could not survive this pandemic without wine or whatever,” Millet said, laughing. “But, the self-indulgence of being able to be hedonistic—purely hedonistic—in the face of emergency… We have a cultural narcissism that the kids in this novel are reacting against.” Though, she pointed out, “that narcissism doesn’t hold a candle to that of, say, our fearless leader.”
It’s this cultural narcissism that Millet is most effective at dismantling in A Children’s Bible, and it’s notable because this isn’t the expected dismissal of the gun-toting, “re-open” protestor type who has emerged during our current pandemic. Instead, she takes direct aim at the reality-denying liberals; the type not unfamiliar to anyone who lives in New York City or LA or who went to a small liberal arts college or who has ever been to a literary event. They have been on Millet’s mind for a long time.
Millet told me that when she first moved to New York, and found herself surrounded by “culture producers,” she was “kind of amazed by how relentlessly humanist everyone was… and how relentlessly interested in exclusively the human self the entire culture seemed to be. And not only the human self, but the personal self, with just a few exceptions. It seemed so dedicated to myopia, you know?”
“The culture that we have—the literary, intellectual culture—seems far less inclined than the scientific culture has been to grapple with what are profound existential questions that absolutely affect everything that we do—or should affect everything we do,” Millet said. “It’s not exactly scientific denial, but an ontological denial, a denial of the awkward and urgent weight of these matters. New York generally feels more like Europe to me than the rest of the country, but still is more insistently, stubbornly, inwardly focused, more inwardly human… The embrace of science and education and knowledge has become almost completely opportunistic, absolutely determined by the needs of the self rather than by any objective standards.”
This refusal to look beyond the self to find entertainment or inspiration and to only selectively listen to what scientists have to say about what’s happening in the world is questionable in the best of times, but, as the pandemic has made undeniably clear, we have not been living in the best of times for a while—if ever. And now, the mass delusion that so many privileged people have participated in, this idea that we’re all the protagonists in our life stories, is falling apart.
This isn’t, according to Millet, a cause for despair. But it is a call to action. “If you have the luxury of fighting, you should fight,” she said. “I think that’s what especially was the spark of the bitterness in the voice of the child, the narrator of this book. It’s the idea that [the parents] didn’t even have it hard. It’s never against those who were scraping out a living, it’s always about the ones who had the luxury of being able to do something. It’s how I felt a little in my twenties, seeing people of privilege in New York, and also in the LA art world and book world, operate with this level of entitlement and unconcern. It made me angry.”
That anger is in the book, but there’s also a rationality to it, a matter-of-factness, that can feel almost tender in the face of so many horrors. The manner in which the children confront the end of their world varies—they are often scared, they are occasionally wistful, they are profoundly disappointed.
“Do you blame us?” asked a mother. Pathetic-sounding.
“We blame you for everything.”
But, the children don’t take it personally. They understand that it’s not about them, not exactly. At least, not any more. This is what makes A Children’s Bible, and what makes all of Millet’s work, feel so radical: There is sentimentality there, but she is sentimental for more than just humans. She cares about the world in a holistic way.
“As I get older, I get more sentimental and more emotional, not less,” Millet told me. “And more captivated by the future.” But rather than softening Millet’s message, this emotion has only made it more acute. She knows that there is no point in pretending that mere survival is enough; leave that to the ultra-wealthy who plan to ride out any future storms siloed away in underground bunkers or aboard their private yachts. For the vast majority of us, survival must be a starting point to learning how to live anew.
“It’s hard to negotiate,” Millet told me, laughing at how absurd it can feel to navigate such ponderous topics without veering into didacticism. And it can perhaps especially feel that way when a book that grapples with an existential crisis is also full of the darkest of humor imaginable. (I mean, there’s nothing either funnier or more tragic than an Ecstasy-fueled cuddle puddle of middle-aged parents ignoring the tree that just speared through their roof.) “It’s difficult,” she continued, “because you don’t want to undercut what you’re doing, and the easiest way to undercut something serious is with humor.”
Millet’s humor here feels pure and reckless, a reminder of both the absurdity and necessity inherent to preparing for certain catastrophe; reading A Children’s Bible can feel like running at full speed toward the edge of a cliff. You know you’ll fall once you have nothing but air beneath you, but you still want to see how long you can keep moving. It’s exhilarating. It’s art, not just for These Times, but for always.
“You know,” Millet said to me, toward the end of our phone call, at which point we’d taken so many turns that it was hard to remember quite where we’d started, only that there’d once been a beginning. She was expanding on what it was that made her angry about all those ultra-humanist cultural producers she’s met, and said that, to them, “art is decoration rather than desperation.” Millet laughed. “That’s a sound bite, but it’s kind of a pretentious sound bite.” She paused, and continued, “But it should come out of desperation, the best art usually does.”