There is a curious airiness to Lydia Millet’s novel Ghost Lights, despite its underlying tension. A pseudo-sequel to her 2008 How the Dead Dream, Ghost Lights finds married family man Hal, an IRS bureaucrat, sloughing off the confines of his everyday life to impulsively hop on a plane in search of his wife’s missing boss, lost somewhere in a tropical jungle.
Everyone in Hal’s life at home is just surviving in any way they can. His wife is having an affair with a younger co-worker; his daughter, wheelchair-bound after an accident, has secretly found work as a phone sex operator. And a job as a government bureaucrat is, of course, shorthand for stifled longings.
So Hal makes like a Joan Didion character and leaps at the chance to leave behind his responsibilities, half-heartedly searching for the missing T. while finally discovering the joys of getting drunk. A hearty German couple, Hans and Gretel, take charge of the mission, and soon Hal is thrashing through the jungle with the Coast Guard and indulging in a brief affair with Gretel, while occasionally, tentatively casting his eye on what he’s left behind and rummaging through his emotions to see if anything can be salvaged.
Millet’s mastery of tone keeps Hal’s picaresque from ever seeming too pat (simultaneously moving the plot along quickly enough to keep the reader from focusing on the plot holes), but it’s hard to shake the feeling while reading Ghost Lights that we’ve read this story before. Not the exact story, of course, but in addition to the Didion time zone, the feeling of amorphous menace is straight out of Patricia Highsmith, and the ending is more than a little reminiscent of Daphne du Maurier’s short story “Don’t Look Now.”
Ghost Lights is ultimately a little like its title: flickering in and out of your consciousness, but as a whole, it’s unlikely to take up permanent residence.
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