Read My Apocalypse

Lydia Millet’s new novel, Sweet Lamb of Heaven, begins with an unwanted pregnancy. Its heroine, Anna, is a virtuous, long-suffering suburban wife. Her sole mistake in life was in her choice of husband; despite herself, she fell in love with a charismatic but predatory businessman who was less attracted to her than to her small family inheritance. Nevertheless, when she gets pregnant by mistake, Anna wants to keep the baby. (“It had been an accident, technically more his fault than mine, but who’s haggling? And once it happened I felt I needed to accept it—I wanted to.”) Her husband, Ned, who is repulsed by the idea of children, tells her to have an abortion. After she insists on having the child, he turns away, shaking his head, and refuses to have anything else to do with the pregnancy. She goes to prenatal appointments without him and sets up the nursery by herself, stocking it with “various infant containers” and “doll-sized pieces of newborn clothing” and gluing glow-in-the-dark stars on the nursery ceiling. Around this time, he moves out of the bedroom they share. When she gives birth, after twenty hours of labor, he is at home, asleep, having stopped by the hospital earlier only to leave “for a work lunch, later for work cocktails, and finally for a late work dinner.”

Before we can delve any deeper into the mechanics of this spectacularly failed marriage, the novel veers abruptly into paranormal territory. In the delivery room, holding the “slippery body” of her newborn daughter, Anna hears “a perplexing chaos of sound in my ears, too many voices in the room for the number of people.” This noise seems somehow linked to the infant in her arms, as if her daughter’s birth had tuned her to a radio frequency she had not previously been able to pick up, a string of half-intelligible words that are impossible to ignore and that no one else seems to hear. At first, this signal comes through faintly, but soon she can hear a constant stream of chatter that dies down only when the baby is napping. When her daughter is old enough to talk, it stops.

A prolific writer, Millet has published ten novels and one story collection since 1996. Her early books are breezy satires, brisk almost to the point of unintelligibility; her first, Omnivores, involves a forced marriage to a real estate agent, her second, George Bush, Dark Prince of Love, a woman’s romantic obsession with the forty-first president. Her more recent works, while retaining a comic edge, have increasingly preached the values of sincerity, of empathy, of embracing cliché and eschewing reflexive irony. Her previous novel, Mermaids in Paradise, a chick-lit parody about a couple who discover modern-day mermaids while honeymooning at a luxury resort, splits the difference between the two, using the mermaids of the title both as a pretext for much slapstick comedy—mermaids! At a luxury resort! In the twenty-first century!—and as a symbol of the mystery of the natural world.

Sweet Lamb of Heaven attempts a similar kind of triangulation between satire and sincerity. Millet plays the sudden arrival of a disembodied voice in her narrator’s mind for laughs, but she clearly also means us to take it seriously as an analogue for the experience of motherhood. The voice has a “life cycle,” the narrator explains. “It passed through those who were newly born, in the time before they spoke, and when they spoke it moved on, displaced by the beginning of speech. It lived in the innocence before that speech, the time that was free of words.” Anna meets others who have become attuned to this cosmic signal, like her, through prolonged contact with small children or animals. One, a gentle gay botanist, gained access to it through a Chinese maple tree; another, a retired Sea World trainer, through a baby orca born in captivity. The most sensitive of these empaths, a brilliant young med student, first heard the voice while holding “an infant with a hole in its heart that lived for only three days.” She describes the voice as a kind of “limbic OS,” a “language of sentience” that runs through all living things.

The language of sentience turns out to sound a lot like NPR. The voice seems to have access to a vast array of edifying literature in several ancient and modern languages. Throughout the day, it delivers capsule lectures on “single-celled organisms, hockey scores, feathers on dinosaurs, celebrity suicides, the pattern of Pleistocene extinctions, the fate of the tribe known as the Nez Perce; relativity, particle accelerators, Greek myths, the troubled term Anthropocene, the chemistry of a callus on the hand of Heidelberg man.” The voice, we learn, has clear political leanings and a whimsical sense of humor. It rails against the military, the patriarchy, and the Christian church. Its idea of a joke is to quote Keats (“Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art”) at an old woman shakily crossing the street. Its favorite singer is Woody Guthrie.

The plot unspools according to the logic of the domestic thriller, a genre whose stock-in-trade is female suffering and male villainy. When Anna works up the courage to leave her husband and take their daughter (although not to file for divorce), Ned at first seems not to even notice their absence. But when he decides to run for state senate on a family-values ticket, he demands that his wife and daughter return to campaign by his side. In order to achieve this goal, he stalks his estranged wife, emotionally manipulates her, and makes her question her sanity. The novel dwells obsessively on Ned’s repulsive physical traits: his sunbed tan, his “daily bouts of grunting resistance training,” his perfect dark-blue suits, his love of cologne, his southern drawl, his “corporate shine,” his “petrochemical sheen.” We are meant to understand that these surface characteristics reflect a basic orientation toward the world, an unquenchable urge to exploit, manipulate, and control. When he kidnaps his daughter and holds her ransom in exchange for Anna’s performance of the role of a loving wife on the campaign trail, it comes as no surprise.

Barbara Kruger, Untitled (Our Leader), 1986, collage, 8 3/8 × 5 1/8". Courtesy Sprüth Magers.

Millet’s main target here is the landscape of post–Citizens United electoral politics. Ned is a plastic candidate, funded by a Koch-brothers-like group of “industry kingmakers.” His campaign is built on a platform of cynical prefabricated positions designed to mobilize rank-and-file Republican voters. The bulk of the novel’s satire consists of pointing out the many forms of hypocrisy his campaign takes. He displays framed pictures of Alaskan mountains on his walls but wants to strip-mine them. He is aggressively Christian and talks about ending the separation of church and state but doesn’t believe in religion’s most basic principles. He “values the sanctity of every human soul” and “the greatness of the American family” but abuses and neglects his own wife and daughter.

Anna organizes the other members of what she calls the “Hearing Voices Movement” into a ragtag opposition. The members of her coalition include “men and women, young and old, white, Asian and Iranian and Dutch Americans, straight and gay,” university administrators and art dealers and Hollywood producers: in other words, liberals. Groping for an explanation for Ned’s actions, Anna’s allies can offer only the idea that he is a “sociopath.” “He feels no empathy,” Anna’s new boyfriend, a benign Argentine librarian, suggests.

The persistent unconvincingness of these machinations is partly technical. Millet is an orderly writer; the prose’s smooth, unruffled clauses can’t capture the clammy unease of the domestic thriller. There is a flatness to the characters and a slapstick quality to the action, which is punctuated by long passages of needless exposition. The overall tone is that of the mild observational humor of a well-oiled stand-up routine.

But there’s a deeper problem. Although Millet dusts her story with a thin layer of irony, a bitter coating on a saccharine pill, the novel falls into the basic fallacy of liberal ideology: that politics comes down to who cares more, that some people simply have empathy and others—i.e., Republicans—don’t. The effect is to flatten substantive differences of opinion into lifestyle preferences: Ned’s love of beige upholstery and beige drapes or Anna’s preference for “solid brick, wooden floors, and soft throw rugs”; his flat-screen TV or her kitchen “shining with copper pots”; his can of beer or her glass of wine; his Ford pickup or her hybrid. There is no question of which side is right or suggestion of any values beyond this narrow universe, and hence, although Millet strains for profundity, there is nothing really at stake.

As the plot builds to an apocalyptic confrontation between “the profiteers themselves, with their millions of tentacles sunk deep into every crack in the earth” and the “small crowd of overeducated, confused liberals” opposing them, Millet ratchets up the intensity, broadening the novel’s scope to encompass language extinction, corporate monoculture, the homogenizing effects of social media. Ned swells from a corrupt politician and manipulative husband to an incarnation of demonic evil, a speaker of “false tongues” implacably committed to destruction. The final chapters of the book are a cry of protest against the “conversion of the world’s airy expansiveness and wild unknowns into gray squares.” The narrator here sounds increasingly like Millet herself, a conservationist by training who has worked for the Natural Resources Defense Council and written extensively on climate change and mass extinction. Sweet Lamb of Heaven springs from a sense of urgency and despair over the failures of our current political system to confront these threats, but it is less a diagnosis than a symptom of the problem it means to describe.

Namara Smith is an editor at n+1.