Straight up or subtle satire? You decide
Writers of fiction find themselves under several obligations. First and perhaps foremost, they must entertain their readers, enticing them to keep turning the pages. Doing so means creating believable characters who must get past some challenging hurdles, whether those involve love, war, nature, or other obstacles.
The authors must also convince readers their stories are authentic, that is, true within the narrative itself. Whether it’s J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy “Lord of the Rings,” James Lee Burke’s suspense novel “Black Cherry Blues”, or Anne Tyler’s mainstream “Saint Maybe,” the author must create a world readers can accept as real.
In “Dinosaurs” (W.W. Norton & Company, 2022, 240 pages), Lydia Millet fulfills this contract with her readers, though they may disagree with some of the premises and conclusions of her characters.
Millet begins her story with Gil, a middle-aged man orphaned in his adolescence and “disgustingly rich,” whose longtime lover Lane has betrayed and then dumped him. He decides to leave New York by walking from Manhattan to his new home in Arizona. While we might expect a chronicle of people and events Gil encountered on his five-month-long strange trek, Millet devotes only a few pages to his journey.
Once Gil arrives safely in Arizona, he settles into his new home. Soon the glass-walled house next door is sold to a family of four: Ardis, a psychotherapist, her husband Ted, whose work involves funding and infrastructure, their teenage daughter Clem, short for Clementine, and their 10-year-old son, Tom.
As Gil becomes involved with this family — with Ardis’s encouragement, he becomes a friend and a mentor to the active Tom — he slowly emerges from the shell created by his broken heart. He maintains contact with a couple of male friends from his past, volunteers at a shelter for abused and battered women — Gil doesn’t have a paying job because of his wealth and because he doesn’t want to take work from another — and eventually begins going out with Sarah, a surgeon who’s friends with Ardis.
Meanwhile, Gil also meets some of his other neighbors, including an obnoxious drunk whose son has bullied Tom. When he discovers someone has taken to shooting birds at night, Gil orders “the most expensive night-vision goggles he could find” in hopes of tracking down this offender.
Birds, which are descendants of the long extinct dinosaurs we see in books and museums, play a prominent role in “Dinosaurs.” The novel is in fact an aviary of words, filled with descriptions and sightings of birds both familiar and obscure.
The title and the plot also imply that people are becoming dinosaurs, creatures on the edge of extinction. The blurb at the front of this novel includes this description: “Millet explores the uncanny territory where the self ends and community begins — what one person can do in a world beset by emergencies. In the shadow of existential threat, where does hope live?”
For several of the men and women in “Dinosaurs,” this existential threat is the presidency of Donald Trump and climate change. Throughout the book, concern about the climate and a diminished natural world occur again and again. Just as political conservatives obsess about certain doomsday scenarios, Gil, Sarah, Ardis, Ted, and even Tom seem convinced the planet is in a death throes. Tom, for instance, lets a mosquito bit his arm and then fly away rather than swatting it because insect life on the planet is in jeopardy. Gil is released from his post at the women’s shelter because new policies enacted because of Trump and the consequent toxic masculinity.
One humorous illustration of what is occasional ostentation occurs in this sentence, when Gil is trying to convince Ardis, who needs a ride home after they’ve shared a drink with Sarah, that he’s sober enough to drive. “Gil had drunk two beers, but it had been mitigated by a pretentious bunch of truffle-oil French fries.” As Ardis knows, Gil is more than accustomed to drink, so why would two beers consumed at a reasonable pace be a worry? And yes, those truffle-oil French fries are pretentious. But then so are some of the opinions and actions of all these people.
At the end of the novel, when Gil is recovering from a run-in with some desert cactus and drugged against the pain, he undergoes a series of revelations, ending with this one, the final lines of “Dinosaurs”:
“In the dark, when nothing else was sure, the soaring tree sheltered you. Almost the only thing you had to see before you slept.
“How you came not from a couple or a few but from infinity.
“So you had no beginning. And you would never end.”
That last reflection contains one of the attributes of God, a being with neither a beginning nor an end. Perhaps this comparison is appropriate. In the myriad of contemporary religious beliefs, some Americans surely do believe they are gods, here to reshape the world and its people. Washington, D.C., for instance, contains a pantheon of such demigods and deities.
There’s much more to this book than is conveyed in this review: sexual mores, observations on grief, some thoughts on wealth and privilege. Suffice it to say that “Dinosaurs” offers a fascinating look into the hearts and minds of a certain class of Americans, with all their virtues and flaws, their intelligence and their ignorance.