Take a deep breath, now exhale. In the time it took you to do that it's more than likely that a life form became extinct somewhere on the planet. Plant, insect, or animal: life is dying around us on a breath by breath basis and we are oblivious to the fact. What does it matter if a sub-species of plant dies never to come back again? I could give you the whole "universe is like a spider web" argument about all life being interconnected and plucking one string on the spider web causes ripples to permeate across the whole, but to most people that still means nothing.
Why? Because human beings are as a rule selfish and we see everything in terms of ourselves. That's normal of course, all animals make themselves the centre of their universe, in the wild it's a matter of survival. What around me is food, shelter, water, or dangerous – how do things affect me and what do I need to do in response isn't even a thought process, it's instinctual and learned behaviour. The difference between humans and other life forms is our putting ourselves at the centre of the web has nothing to do with survival, and everything to do with personal gain of some sort.
Everything from our interpersonal relationships to the decisions we make regarding what clothes to wear are dictated by what gain we will receive from our actions. Will that person fall in love with me if I do this? By wearing these clothes will I create the impression needed in order for another person to trust me? Even the act of me writing out these words is being done for selfish reasons – I want you to react, or at least pay attention to what I've written.
In her latest book, How The Dead Dream published by Counterpoint Press and distributed by Publishers Group Canada, Lydia Millet explores the nature of human selfishness through her central character, a man simply known as T. We follow T. from childhood on, and it becomes quickly obvious that there is something pathological about his obsession with money.
He literally "squirrels" away his money as a child, carrying coins around in his cheeks for safe keeping, while stashing bills under his mattress. When his mother dared to remove the money and leave it out on a shelf, he was offended at how unfeeling she was towards it, leaving it exposed and vulnerable to who knows what deprivations. Nothing his parents tell him offers any reassurance that his money will be safe out in the open, and only the guarantee that banks are insured against robbery, along with coerced seed money from his parents, convinces him to open a bank account.
Based on the his rather broad definition of ethics when it came to his means of raising money as a child, (soliciting sponsorships for non-existent charity events on the premise that he is providing his neighbours the opportunity to feel good about themselves) it should come as little surprise that he gets into the business of real estate sales and development upon leaving University. Utilizing the contacts he established through his former fraternity he is quickly upon a fast track towards financial success.
Initially everything T. does has the feeling of being carefully evaluated in terms of expenditure and return. From taking his mother to Mass when she comes to visit him at University to the way he conducts himself with his fraternity brothers. Everything about him, and everything he does is calculated. He is always there for his fraternity brothers, which is everything from talking them down from potential suicide to convincing girls not to press date rape charges, ensuring their gratitude; even if they have no reason to like him, they depend on him.
Everything is working to plan for him until a series of seemingly unconnected events occur that will change the course of his life and eventually how he sees himself in relationship to the rest of the world's inhabitants. I know, it seems like every other book you read has somebody's eyes being opened to their "sins" and after their "epiphany" change their lives around and become a saint.
Thankfully Lydia Millet has a firmer grip on reality than that, and T. remains basically the same person. The only difference is that he starts to see there are more pieces at play in the world than what is necessarily in front of his eyes. When a housing project he develops displaces and causes the extinction of a breed of kangaroo rat, he begins to obsess about endangered species. He recognizes that humans have the potential to eventually destroy all life on the planet and he is afraid.
Someone told him that beneath each ant hill resides tens, if not hundreds of thousands of ants. He imagines that under the earth's surface they have excavated huge caverns, and has nightmares of them all of a sudden vanishing and the earth crumbling and his housing developments vanishing. In a desperate search for answers, and he's not even sure of the questions, he takes it into his head that he will understand things better if he breaks into the cages of endangered animals in the zoos.
How The Dead Dream is a satirical examination of values in the modern world and the selfishness of human beings. While T. is the embodiment of those characteristics, and on occasion borders on caricature, Millet always brings him back from the edge just enough for him to be believable. She has divided his life into three very distinct worlds, personal, business, and the wild, or animal world, and he ends up not being at home in any of them.
The people he does business with are buffoons who he has nothing in common with and only uses for their money. He is at a loss as to what to do about his mother as she descends into senility. He hotly denies her accusations of him being "her son the thief", perhaps forgetting his behaviour as a child, that she could well be referring to, and leaves her in the care of a full-time nurse.
As for the natural world, he's about at home in its reality as a tiger is in a city. He doesn't understand the animals in the zoo cages any more than he does the people in his life. He comes face to face with how helpless he really is during a trip to a resort he's developing that happens to be in hurricane country.
How The Dead Dream is an indictment of the shallowness that dominates most people's thinking, and how narrow dreams have become. If we are dead to anything but money and what it can give us, what kind of dreams are we going to have? The answer isn't pretty, but unfortunately far too many of them are coming true. The dead don't care about the living, and evidence of that can be seen each time you breathe in and out and another species dies.