Recent Reading: Lydia Millet & Ethan Hawke
For my Hot Off the Press class, last week we discussed A Children’s Bible by Lydia Millet, chosen because this session we are reading prize winners or nominees, and this book was on a lot of “best of 2020” and award lists.
I liked it very much and was surprised how many of the class participants did not enjoy the book.
What I liked… The writing is excellent (we all agreed on that). The story is told from the point of view of a teenager and I think she did a great job with the voice; it was very convincing. (Although I can’t say I’m the best judge of authentic teenager speak these days!)
The frame of the story is that a group of families rent a big old mansion (said to have been built and owned by “robber barons”) near a lake and the ocean somewhere in New England to spend the summer with their families. The parents are old college friends and haven’t all been together for a long time. They are artsy professionals. The kids all sleep upstairs in the attic and totally disdain their parents – in fact they won’t even admit to each other which ones of those embarrassing adults are in fact their particular parents.
All goes wrong when a storm hits and, since this is climate change fiction, the storm changes the world. It’s actually many ongoing storms that devastate the eastern seaboard. The kids escape to a farm, leaving their parents behind.
The book is a parable. It’s a devastating critique of people ignoring climate change. As the author said in a separate interview, she can’t understand why more people aren’t freaking out about the issue, and this is her call to arms. She herself has a master’s degree in environmental policy and works at the Center for Biological Diversity.
Readers felt the parents were presented as too “extreme,” i.e. all bad – a bunch of uncaring, oblivious slugs. I guess my response to that is: unreliable narrator.
The bible referred to in the title is a children’s bible that one of the young characters, the narrator’s younger brother Jack, is given by one of the parents and begins to read, well, religiously. His own take on the bible has to do with science and nature, and his interpretation of the book leads him to do things like collect the animals and bring them to safety before the flood. I enjoyed finding the many other biblical parallels in the story.
I also just read Ethan Hawke’s new novel A Bright Ray of Darkness. The multi-talented Hawke tells the story of an actor whose marriage is falling apart and who is being featured in the tabloids because he recently got caught cheating on his wife. He is also, as the book begins, heading into rehearsals for a performance of Shakespeare’s “Henry the IV Parts 1 & 2” on Broadway, where he is playing the role of Hotspur. If you’re thinking that Ethan Hawke had some very similar circumstances in his own life, you’d be right. His marriage to Uma Thurman did fall apart amid rumors of his infidelity, and he did play Hotspur at Lincoln Center – I was lucky enough to see that performance, with Hawke, Kevin Kline, Audra McDonald and others. So we’ve got ourselves a roman à clef here.
But never mind that. What we have is a fascinating story on many levels. We see a man going through turmoil and major life change and how he deals with it. And we get a wonderful peek behind the scenes at the theatre into how a play is put together.
The book takes an approach that I’ve seen with other writers such as Sigrid Nunez and, from what I know of the work of Rachel Cusk, she does this too, which is that each chapter hangs on an encounter and a long conversation with a different character whom our protagonist encounters somehow (in his work, at a bar, at a party…) and the conversation and/or the action with this character provide the plot for that chapter. So it’s a book packed with various philosophies of life and, although some of them are too talky, it’s all very interesting.
And the main goal of the character, I think, is to learn to like himself. To be proud of himself and feel good about what he can do and has accomplished and to feel hopeful for his own future. And I can relate to that!