Book review: We Loved It All, by Lydia Millet

In her first work of non-fiction, American author Lydia Millet addresses ecological concerns with both wit and urgency, writes Stuart Kelly

I first came across Lydia Millet’s work in 2007 when I reviewed O Pure And Radiant Heart, her tremendous novel in which the physicists Szilard, Fermi and Oppenheimer appear in present day America immediately after, from their perspective, detonating the first atom bomb in New Mexico. Of her other works I managed to get Everybody’s Pretty, a scathing novel based on her having sub-edited and written for Larry Flynt’s pornographic magazines, and the outrageous comedy George Bush, Dark Prince Of Love. But being intrigued by her work was something of a quest, since later works rarely had UK publishers. I did read How The Dead Dream but did not see the two other parts of the trilogy, Ghost Lights and Magnificence. I can only hope that the publication of We Loved It All might nudge the risk-averse British publishers to take notice – it worked, eventually, for Percival Everett.

We Loved It All is Millet’s first work of non-fiction, and can be read profitably alongside her previous novel, A Children’s Bible, which was shortlisted for the Pulitzer and the National Book Award in the States and deals with many of the same concerns. Although her work is characterised as idiosyncratic or quirky or capricious, Millet is really just unswervingly herself. Although she writes with arch wit, she is an urgently moral author.

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Millet’s “day job” is with the Center for Biological Diversity, and ecological concerns, indeed, traumas are central to the book, a series of three sets of ten – well, “prose studies” might do. Coincidentally, Kathleen Jamie’s new book, Cairn, out later this year, has a similar frustration with nomenclature: hers are personal notes, prose poems, micro-essays, fragments, “call them what you will”. Millet is also alert to the dangers of environmental rhetoric. Not only can some – Jonathan Franzen and Greta Thunberg spring to mind – be hectoring and sanctimonious, but much of the language originated with the problem. It was, she notes, BP that popularised the term “carbon footprint”. Millet sets herself all this: “To motivate change, some argue for hope over fear. Climate doomsaying, like the invocation of personal responsibility as a substitute for structural transformation, can feel like a psy-ops of despair. Encouraging apathy. In fact hope and fear run alongside each other, indivisible. And fear and despair are not equivalent”. Her snark can come with teeth. I can’t think of many other authors who would know and deploy the fact that Americans spend $490 million on pet Hallowe’en costumes; one fifth of the US budget for protecting endangered species.

An installation depicting an anglerfish, made from plastic waste, is displayed by environmental activists during a rally in Jakarta on 20 July, 2019 PIC: Dasril Roszandi / AFP via Getty ImagesAn installation depicting an anglerfish, made from plastic waste, is displayed by environmental activists during a rally in Jakarta on 20 July, 2019 PIC: Dasril Roszandi / AFP via Getty Images
An installation depicting an anglerfish, made from plastic waste, is displayed by environmental activists during a rally in Jakarta on 20 July, 2019 PIC: Dasril Roszandi / AFP via Getty Images

Millet’s mind is restless and unsettling. One section, for example, cartwheels through the taxonomy homo sapiens, bumper stickers, Linnaeus, animal souls and scriptural evidence thereof, suicide in animals, what makes humans distinct, the death of a pet guinea pig, temperature dependent sex determination in turtles, T Rex, ichthyosaurs, Descartes, Slavoj Zizek and whether animals feel pain. Yet somehow it flows seamlessly, punctured by acerbic jolts: “The litany of human distinctions is so long it starts to look like a résumé. With, at the bottom of the page – that brief, indulgently personal section that often seems laughably irrelevant to potential employers – titled “Other Skills.” – First species to weaponize a tiny particle known as the atom. – First species to weaponize the sun. – And the air. – And the fossils. – And the ocean, from which all life emerged”.

The title plays out in significant and unexpected ways. Anglerfish are “so ugly that it tests the proposition that aesthetics are subjective” until she reads Theodore Pietsch on them: “I love this man. Because this man loves the anglerfish”. It is there in a heartbreaking piece of memoir, when, sitting with her dying father, she says “We all love you very much”, but then can’t remember if she actually said “We all loved you very much”. It is there in her sense of a paternal, perhaps even specifically maternal, relationship between humanity and what she calls “the others” rather than the singular “other”: “what if we said: our parenthood is not the lonely consecration of our own, of what has emerged from us, but also of the many they depend on? … those who come later will inherit a poor kingdom. Even if our grandchildren or great-grandchildren can eke out a living in the bareness of what remains, they’ll be moving through time as orphans. Orphaned by us, after we’ve gone, in our failures of foresight and empathy”. The love is even there for the implements of our ending. It takes a great deal of moral maturity to be able to write, “Maybe we should allow ourselves to mourn the end of fossil fuel culture as the monumental passing it will be”.

As with A Children’s Bible, Millet has a fascinating if not untroubled relationship with faith. Perhaps her most succinct description is a belief in a “pluriverse” of perceptions. In contrast to the rather vulgar and infantile work of self-styled “The Four Horsemen of the Non-Apocalypse”, Dennett, Dawkins, Harris and Hichens (it’s really not quite so funny in the face of mass extinction), Millet is too clever and empathetic to be an atheist. It ends in tones I can only call epiphanic: “And behold the shining faces of the infinite. To some, the face of God. For the promised land was given to us long ago. Look! Look. Heaven was here the whole time. And we were never meant to be alone”.

We Loved It All, by Lydia Millet, WW Norton, £19.99