There is real tragedy in “Dinosaurs,” but most of it takes place before the book opens; so long ago, in fact, that the central character, Gil, can barely remember it. As we learn through some brief references, as a child, Gil lost his parents in a car accident. His stern grandmother took care of him for several years, but then she, too, died. He remained in his house, where a series of well-paid guardians looked after him “like a fly caught in amber.” And when he finally turned 18, Gil came into possession of a trust fund so vast it could never be exhausted.
Lydia Millet’s ‘Children’s Bible’ is a gripping classic
“Dinosaurs,” then, is a story about an extraordinarily wealthy white man struggling to make his way in the modern world. You may be under the impression that more urgent stories are being told these days. This novel will confirm that suspicion. He kept expecting to feel the deadly edge of Millet’s satirical wit, but Gil is allowed to bask in his gilt-plated self-pity largely unscathed.
The opening pages feature Gil reeling from a bad breakup with his girlfriend. From the depths of this existential crisis, he becomes convinced that he needs a change of life and place, so he decides to walk from Manhattan to Phoenix, Arizona, where he has bought a house online. At 25 miles a day, that hike takes about five months. “Time moved so slowly that he stopped measuring it,” writes Millet. “The slowness seemed funny.”
We will have to take his word for it.
Shortly after Gil moves into his new house in the desert, he notices movement next door. It is a striking modern building with all glass walls. The new owners are an attractive young couple and their two children, a teenager and a toddler. “It was hard not to look at them,” Millet writes. “At first they seemed to him like a group of mannequins, in the window of a high-end department store. Say Bloomingdale’s. Or Sacks.
You’re probably already thinking of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Back Window” or the recent AJ Finn knockoff “The Woman in the Window,” or even Netflix’s delightful satire “The Woman in the House Across the Street from the girl in the window. Or perhaps the more suspicious readers among you are worried about Gil’s interest in the little boy of his new neighbors.
I’m telling you: get all those worries off your mind.
As this story unfolds, the neighbors and Gil quickly become friends. The wife is lovely; kind husband. Gil waters his plants when they go on vacation. And with a lot of free time, he becomes the babysitter for his son. Although he has no experience with children, he is naturally kind and encouraging in ways this child needs.
“Dinosaurs” is not free of emotional tension, but that tension is subdued, almost subterranean. Freed by his immense inheritance from any responsibility or burden, Gil is a melancholic and lonely man who struggles to find any reason to exist. “I’m just a parasite,” he says. “I have time for everything.” He worries that he is simply “taking up space, a place in the world, for no good reason.”
Laudably, he wants to do something That matters. Like all of us, he longs for some proof of his true worth.
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And so the novel offers a series of well-crafted incidents that present Gil learning to assert his values. In her most determined mode, she volunteers as an assistant at a women’s shelter. He comforts the widow of a close friend; he stops a bully from picking on the neighbors son; and he develops an interest in protecting native birds, those distant relatives of the dinosaurs.
In those passages, Millet confirms that she is a master of poignant moments. These scenes are charming, often witty, sometimes moving. And I have no doubt that fabulously rich people in the prime of life with nothing to do endure the darkness of the soul along with the rest of us, only on better sheets.
But do you want to read about how unfortunate that is?
Millet has explored this kind of existential despair more forcefully before. For example, “How the Dead Dream” followed a wealthy real estate developer who suddenly began communicating with animals hurtling toward extinction. That novel came out 15 years ago, but I can still recall its haunting sense of longing and dread through a story that was persistently unnerving.
Such pathos and quirkiness have been effectively tamed in “Dinosaurs,” which asks us to care but doesn’t give us much reason to.
rum charles check books and write book club newsletter for The Washington Post.
W. W. Norton. 230 pages $26.95
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