There is real tragedy in “Dinosaurs,” but most of it takes place before the book opens – so long ago, in fact, that the central character, Gil, can barely remember it. As we learn through a few brief references, as a child Gil lost both parents in a car accident. His stern grandmother cared for him for several years, but she too died. He remained in his home, where a series of well-paid caretakers nursed him “like a fly trapped in amber”. And when he finally turned 18, Gil came into possession of a trust fund so vast it could never be depleted.
Lydia Millet’s ‘A Children’s Bible’ is a stunning classic
“Dinosaurs,” then, is the story of an extraordinarily wealthy white man struggling to make his way in the modern world. You may feel like there are more pressing stories being told these days. This novel will confirm this suspicion. I expected to feel the deadly edge of Millet’s satirical wit, but Gil is allowed to bask in his gold-plated self-pity largely unscathed.
The opening pages feature Gil reeling from a bad breakup with his girlfriend. From the depths of this existential crisis, he becomes convinced that he needs a change of life and place, so he decides to walk from Manhattan to Phoenix, where he bought a house on the Internet. At 25 miles a day, this trek takes him about five months. “Time moved so slowly that it stopped measuring it,” Millet writes. “The slowness seemed like a grace.”
We’ll have to take her word for it.
Shortly after Gil moves into his new home in the desert, he notices movement nearby. It is a modern and impressive building, completely enclosed by glass walls. The new owners are an attractive young couple and their two children, a teenage girl and a little boy. “It was hard not to look at them,” writes Millet. “At first, they seemed like a group of mannequins, in the window of a high-end department store. Say Bloomingdale’s. Or Saks.
You’re probably already thinking of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window” or AJ Finn’s recent knockoff “The Woman in the Window,” or even Netflix’s delightful satire “The Woman in the House Across the Street From the Girl in the Window”. Or maybe the more wary readers among you are worried about Gil’s interest in his new neighbors’ baby boy.
I tell you: get all these concerns out of your mind.
As this story unfolds, the neighbors and Gil quickly become friends. The woman is lovely; the kind husband. Gil waters their plants when they go on vacation. And with plenty of free time, he becomes their son’s go-to babysitter. Although he has no experience with children, he is naturally kind and supportive in the way this child needs.
“Dinosaurs” is not without emotional tension, but that tension is tempered, almost subterranean. Freed by his immense heritage from any responsibility or burden, Gil is a melancholic and solitary man who struggles to find a reason to exist. “I’m just a parasite,” he says. “I have time for everything.” He worries that he is “just taking up space, a slot in the world, for no good reason”.
Luckily he wants to Something it is important. Like all of us, he yearns for proof of his true worth.
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Thus, the novel offers a series of well-crafted incidents that present Gil learning to assert his values. In his most determined mode, he volunteers as an attendant at a women’s shelter. He comforts the widow of a close friend; he prevents a tyrant from attacking the son of the neighbours; and he developed an interest in protecting native birds, those distant relatives of the dinosaurs.
In such passages, Millet confirms that she is a master of poignant moments. These scenes are charming, often witty, sometimes moving. And I have no doubt that fabulously wealthy people in their prime with nothing to do endure soul darkness with the rest of us – just on better leaves.
But do you want to read how distressing it is?
Millet explored this kind of existential despair more powerfully. For example, “How the Dead Dream” followed a wealthy real estate developer who suddenly began to commune with animals hurtling towards extinction. This novel came out 15 years ago, but I still remember its haunting sense of nostalgia and dread that ran through a story that was consistently unnerving.
Such emotion and quirkiness was effectively domesticated in “Dinosaurs,” which asks us to care but doesn’t give us much reason to.
Ron Charles book reviews and writing Book club newsletter for the Washington Post.
WWNorton. 230 pages $26.95
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