Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

Everyone’s Pretty by Lydia Millet

In many ways, this novel is the literary antidote to the Friends/Sex and the City/Ally MacBeal generation. While it works as a black comedy, it’s also an effective social satire, and it bangs the gong – it’s official – dysfunction doesn’t make people more interesting; it doesn’t automatically mean that they’re more sophisticated than the rest of us; it’s just not cool anymore. That judgment may seem flippant, but it’s appropriate given that most people who are messed-up, well let’s face it, aren’t actually that messed-up. The cult of dysfunction was only ever a fashion-statement to start with. Live by the sword…

And so Lydia Millet gives us a novel in which a number of utterly socially incompetent characters are amongst the least cool people you could imagine – a freeloading alcoholic pornographer with messianic delusions; his frigid Catholic fundamentalist sister; a megalomaniac Christian scientist with a slow-motion car-crash for a marriage. One aspect of the subtext is obvious – Millet is not attempting to counterpoint the worldview of Dean Decetes, the pornographer, with that of Bucella, his sister or Philip Kreuz, the Christian scientist. The point is that in contemporary America, moral decadence as exemplified by the porn industry and the wholesale rejection of civil society by religious fanatics are simply the flip-side of each other – they are both symptoms of the same overarching decadence, which is an intellectual failing in its essence. Its defining characteristic is the blind refusal to learn from a reality which stubbornly frustrates our expectations, but there are other common hallmarks, such as the tedious tendency to hyper-sexualize everything, for example. The only people who spend more time obsessing about sex than pornographers and perverts are religious nutbags. Then, again, there are psychoanalysts, the ultimate beneficiaries of the cult of dysfunction, but that’s another opera.

But the satire doesn’t stop there – the novel poses questions about liberal democracy in America, and perhaps in the wider world. Has liberal democracy destroyed its own social basis? Does it make it possible for people to create religious and cultural microclimates within which any reasonable standard of behaviour, or the concept of a mature civil society, is rejected? Can it survive these contradictions? Both Bucella Decetes and Phil Kreuz work for the same statistics company – on the surface, they’re both model citizens. In other words, as long as you can earn a living and stay within the confines of the law, social competence will not be expected of you. How long can a society survive when its concept of normalcy has been hollowed-out to such an extent?

As a work of fiction, the novel is fairly well-written, and the storyline clicks along at an effortless pace. The narrative is always focalized through one or other of the characters. Given their abject dysfunction, that means a lot of overly-poetic (and often utterly preposterous) internal monologues. There are times when it becomes jarring. Stylistically, it reinforces the central point of the novel – that our social life has been reduced to a collection of obtuse, self-absorbed internal monologues.

The trajectory of the plot is inevitable from early on – the characters’ lives will spiral out of control in an orgy of misery and self-destruction. Personally, I found that quite gratifying. Some people are just born to lose. It’s the natural order. Unfortunately, this isn’t social realism. Delusional people don’t always get their comeuppance. They find protected cultural enclaves in which to hide. However if, like most products of liberal education, you met far, far too many boring-annoying-problematic-unhappy-childhood motherfuckers in university, and you enjoy watching them suffer, this novel is for you.

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