Saturday, May 19, 2007

Lydia Millet's "My Happy Life"

Lydia Millet applied the "Page 99 Test" to her third novel, My Happy Life, winner of the 2003 PEN-USA Award.

Here is the text from page 99, followed by the author's exegesis:

When I got back to the city where Mr. D. had found me, it was no longer there.

Excuse me: there was a city of the same name, but the city I knew was gone. Bare avenues with blank, square buildings stretched where there had once been narrow curved roads shaded by old trees. Even the park was gone, and the bronze man that used to stand at its center. This man had been extremely large and strict. He had a handlebar mustache, rode upon a rearing horse of bronze and stiffly held up his sword in a challenging fashion. But where the bronze man had sat on his horse with his sword raised was a Long-Term Parking Structure with four stories. I thought sadly: Poor father, your sword was not so sharp after all.

Anyway the streets and buildings were transformed, and there was nothing that I knew. And while I had never wished to leave my traces on the world, yet I always assumed it left its imprints on me. I thought I was at least a place where memories reposed. But here it seemed that I had fished my memories from one great dark whirlpool surrounded by banks of sliding sand, whose pull was always shifting. And swiftly all the time I had known was a figment, much like me. I was nothing without memory. And I felt dizzy and fell down, with everything disappearing.

I think the page represents. With other novels of mine I would guess a single page might not, but this book is short and of a piece and the tone remains fairly consistent throughout. The story is of a good person. Her heart is pure, unlike, say, my own. This page shows much that is typical of the book — its vague setting in a place that seems part European, part American; the way the protagonist has a sense of humor that seems more acute than her sense of right and wrong, or at least of social responsibility and blame, and a diction more sophisticated than her logic; the contrast between her smallness and the vast agency of the outside world, in which she plays little part. When I read this page, which is the beginning of a chapter that tells how she haunts cemeteries looking for her lost child, I remember who she is. I wish things would get better for her and I wait for them to.
Read more about the novel at the publisher's website, and visit the author's website for an excerpt.

--Marshal Zeringue