Lydia Millet's sixth novel, How the Dead Dream, opens with an unforgettable image: A young boy named T. is so entranced by money that he purses coins in his mouth, as if to absorb the currency's mysterious power. His parents are naturally concerned: "Such a dirty habit," his mother says. T. says he'll quit for the right price, and an impasse is reached. Crossing the living room one day during his mother's book club meeting, T. is stopped and fawned over by one of the ladies. Admonished to reply, T., "with a few gagging head pokes like a cat vomiting, opened his mouth and rained a wet spew of coins into his cupped hands." His parents relent and open a savings account in the boy's name.
How the Dead Dream is T.'s story, and Millet crafts a character completely whole, complex, and intriguing. As T. matures, his love of money expands with a capitalistic piety that rivals his mother's Catholicism. T. teaches himself not only how to turn one dollar into three, but how to study and manipulate people to procure the only thing he values: more money.
Millet's mastery is that we never grow to hate T. the way we'd hate most characters (or people) who share his values. Neither do we particularly like him; Millet writes with a curious detachment, as if T. were a specimen under a microscope that could read his thoughts and motivations. We don't suspect him of any maliciousness—only an imbalanced obsession with wealth. And then in adulthood, long after his first million and in subtle and surprising ways, T. slowly grows a heart. But this is no simplistic tale of redemption: He remains aloof and self-contained, and his newfound compassion triggers sarcasm and threats of violence against perceived offenders.
Ever detached from humans, and jarred from normalcy by tragedy, T. becomes obsessed with extinction, and sneaks into zoos at night so he can sleep with the animals. The idea doesn't work any better in the book than it sounds here—How the Dead Dream feels split down the middle: pre- and post-zoological obsession. Millet's style becomes more philosophical (and skimmable) as the story shifts, and one suddenly wonders what happened to the great story they had been reading. The disappointing second act doesn't sink the book entirely; it's just too bad Millet didn't wrap it up around page 135 and call it a terrific novella.