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In These Stories, Home Is Where the Heartache Is

FIGHT NO MORE
By Lydia Millet
209 pp. W.W. Norton & Company. $24.95.

“Home” is a word that can conjure feelings of safety and belonging. The very sound suggests a comfortable embrace; the exhale is almost a sigh of relief. But the canny and daring writer Lydia Millet is no sentimentalist, and in “Fight No More,” her new collection of linked stories, she explores the fragility and treachery of a place that can offer both solace and deception.

Millet’s boldly playful and intellectually charged body of work combines lightning bolts of emotional acuity, moments of precise poetry and subversively dark comedy along with investigations of existential ideas and real-world concerns. The ambitions of her latest are no less far-reaching. The stories’ activating character is Nina, a young real estate agent in Los Angeles. Nina meets all kinds — a woman who fancies herself a vampire and keeps blood in her refrigerator, a suicidal rock star, a woman who hallucinates that tiny men are renovating her house out from under her. Jeremy, a teenager, stung by his father’s desertion and angry that he and his mother must move out of their home, times his masturbation sessions so that when Nina and her clients open the door to his bedroom, they are treated to a surprise. Aleska, Jeremy’s grandmother, a retired academic, must sell her beloved home and move in with Jeremy’s father, his sweetly naïve young wife and their new baby. The couple want an au pair to care for the infant, and Jeremy suggests Lexie, a teenage girl whose online sex site he patronizes. Lexie has fled her home and a stepfather whose sexual obsession with her is the subject of one of the collection’s most unnervingly raw pieces.

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Formally, a linked collection suggests that meaning lies not in any individual story but in the philosophical joins that connect them, and Millet provides her characters with the desire to understand the fractures in their lives in a larger context. Aleska, whose family perished in the Holocaust, has spent a lifetime studying the aesthetics and appeal of fascist art. Desire and degradation are also issues Lexie confronts. While showing a house, Nina, raised but mostly abandoned by a mentally ill mother, helps to save the depressed musician from drowning. In the aftermath, Nina feels “the euphoria drain away. What stayed was almost like grief. It was true someone had been saved, but who was saved and who was left?”

This question of relative gain is subtly threaded through the stories. “A person might want to be free to do something to you, often,” Nina considers. “One man’s freedom was another man’s aggravated assault.” It is a sentiment that not only has sickening resonance when we meet Lexie’s predatory stepfather, but one that also troubles the hearts of stories that explore a complex set of ideas including the relationship between sexual and political pornography, the pain of others and the ways in which we mistake the ersatz for the real. Aleska mourns the loss of her beloved home that she has fashioned as a bulwark against the trauma of her past, but she also understands that it offered her son no protection from her inadvertently wounding behavior. “What we do to our children,” she muses. “She herself, what had she done? Benign neglect. Lost in the daydreams. Sometimes nightmares. The sedimentation of everyday life.”

Life cannot be fully reckoned with, Millet suggests in this shimmering and brilliantly engaged collection, unless we embrace the fact that there is always a snake in even the most serene of gardens.


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