“It’s what we want that we see, not what is

So a couple weeks ago I noted on Twitter that I was excited about reading some new fiction. I was probably around 50 pages into Lydia Millet’s Sweet Lamb of Heaven at that point, and I did what I often do when I’m excited about a new(ish) book: I looked for what other people were writing about it.*

It was an interview by Lily Meyer at Electric Literature that really caught my eye. Asked how she went about writing a novel “about language,” she says:

I wanted a reliable narrator, and really, my bailiwick in the past has been the flawed narrator. But here, because I had these outlandish conceits, I needed someone authoritative. She’s arch, she’s intelligent, but she’s pretty straight, and I needed that foil to play against ideas about the divine and the supernatural. You can’t really have a narrator who seems overtly untrustworthy, which is the kind of narrator that’s easier for me. But I wanted to have her be believable. I didn’t want the reader wondering whether she was just a kook. It wouldn’t have served my ideological or narrative purposes, and I think it’s sort of boring. I’m a little jaded about the Am I crazy thing that you see in a lot of horror movies. I tried to dispense with that, to say, This isn’t a story about unreliability.

millet lydia sweet lamb heavenI wondered whether Millet was messing with the interviewer at this point.** A narrator doesn’t have to be overtly untrustworthy to be unreliable, or to seem so to the reader. And I had definitely questioned the narrator of Sweet Lamb of Heaven.

Something about the book would be useful here. Anna, our narrator, is keeping a sort of diary or document of her experiences since an unplanned pregnancy led to the birth of her daughter, virtually ignored by her now-unfaithful husband. From the time Lena is a newborn, Anna hears a voice when she is nearby. She searches for explanations of the voice, and after some research (she does not tell any medical professionals what’s happening) she concludes that she is not insane but experiencing auditory hallucinations.

That’s a perfectly reasonable explanation, but by page 15 Anna is pointing out potential flaws with the theory. At this point, it’s a realistic novel: assuming Anna is hallucinating, whether she’s sane or not, the voice is the only thing out of the ordinary. Her husband, Ned, may be cold to her and the baby, but he hasn’t done anything. It seems to be written purposely to teeter between two possibilities, the one on the surface, where Anna has righteously left a bad man and taken her child, and the one where Anna is unbalanced and is kidnapping Lena. Again, early in the novel, Anna recounts the time they’d been hiding out on the Appalachian Trail, saw helicopters and decided to flee:

And I knew we’d been right to run when the cook, who had become a friend, called me. She said four men had come, two from each direction since the trail stretched out on either side of the cabin. They converged on it fifteen minutes after we’d left. They weren’t dressed for hiking: their shoes were shiny leather ruined by mud. So she told them only that we’d left the day before, and after some unhappy muttering and some prowling around the grounds and questioning of other guests, the four men went away.

This is the kind of evidence Anna has of Ned’s ultracreepiness—circumstantial. It all could be straightforwardly just as she says. But those could have been cops, FBI agents or whatever, chasing after a kidnapper rather than Ned’s henchmen—a word Anna later repeats to herself, “a comical word I’d never thought I’d have a use for.”

After fleeing the leather-shod men in the mountains, Anna and Lena end up spending the off-season at a motel in a sleepy town in Maine, giving us, as Laura Miller writes in Slate, “the skeleton—and no small amount of the flesh—of a Stephen King novel.” For a while it’s just them and the motel owner, but then a young woman named Kay arrives. Eventually the place is overrun with affluent men and women of all ages who, Anna will come to find out, have also heard the voice.

This throws her for a huge loop. Ned heard the voice once—a point that severely undermined her hallucination explanation—but this is much worse. (And how realistic is the novel now?) They develop a sort of support group to discuss the voice, and what they think it might be or mean. Kay has more ideas about that than the others.

“It exists in most things that live. It’s language, or the innate capacity for language, is a better way to put it. You could say it’s the language of sentience.”

“Trees don’t have language. Trees don’t have opinions,” objected Navid, kicking the floor with his toes.

Kay looked up at him. It was a different look from those she usually gave him, I realized. It was sympathy.

“It’s not that we’re the only ones who have it, or hear it, or are it,” she went on, so quiet that I had to strain to hear. “What’s different about us, different from how it is with the other animals and even the plants—what happened with Lena and Anna and in my case with Infant Vasquez? What’s different is that we’re the only ones it leaves.”

Kay’s argument is bolstered by Anna’s inclusion of one of many excerpts from Wikipedia, in this case from the entry on communication:

Communication is observed within the plant organism, i.e. within plant cells and between plant cells, between plants of the same or related species, and between plants and non-plant organisms, especially in the root zone … plant roots communicate with rhizome bacteria, fungi and insects in the soil. These interactions … are possible because of the decentralized “nervous system” of plants.

It’s fine to say that plants “talk to” bacteria in the soil to describe what’s going on when they exchange chemical and electrical signals, but I’m pretty sure I’m supposed to think this is about more than just a colorful way of describing such banal interactions. But I’m not at all sure what that more is, an it just ends up seeming like a childish misreading of the Wikipedia article. When Anna on the next page laments her inferiority compared to Kay, is that because she’s sane and Kay is perceptive, or because she’s depressed and afraid and doesn’t realize Kay is a total flake? (And there is evidence Kay is not well—Anna herself accepts that Kay is “mentally ill.”)

There might be a clue in an extended excerpt from a Huffington Post blog post by Peter Russell on the nature of consciousness.

But wait. That blog post is from June 9, 2011, and was updated on August 9, 2011. But Millet sources her excerpt to Peter Russell in HuffPo in December 2013. There’s also this post, under a different byline (Peter Baksa), published October 3, 2011 and updated December 3, 2011. And it’s just about word-for-word the same thing. Peter Baksa seems to have a book about The Secret; here are his and Russell’s Twitter feeds.

I’d be inclined to call this stuff “flaky” regardless, but even if you’re into The Secret, there’s something fishy going on with those identical blog posts. Did Millet know about them? (Did Anna?) (And was I really meant to take seriously a passage of research on the nature of consciousness pasted in from HuffPo? Is that really a straight, non-kooky narrator—or the research skill of a professor?) (And where is the version from 2013? It’s definitely not on Russell’s author page.)

Soon there is another Wikipedia excerpt, from an entry on panpsychism:

Panpsychism is one of the oldest philosophical theories, the view that mind or soul (Greek: ψυχη) is a universal feature of all things, and the primordial feature from which all others are derived.

But that’s not what Wikipedia actually says. It’s not what Wikipedia has said at any point in 2016, as the excerpt is dated:

In philosophy, panpsychism is the view that consciousness, mind or soul (psyche) is a universal and primordial feature of all things. Panpsychists see themselves as minds in a world of minds.

Panpsychism is one of the oldest philosophical theories, and has been ascribed to philosophers like Thales, Plato, Spinoza, Leibniz and William James. Panpsychism can also be seen in ancient philosophies such as Stoicism, Vedanta and Mahayana Buddhism. During the 19th century, panpsychism was the default theory in philosophy of mind, but it saw a decline during the middle years of the 20th century with the rise of logical positivism.[1] The recent interest in the hard problem of consciousness has once again made panpsychism a widespread theory.

Now, I don’t think those differences are significant in terms of meaning, but…what is up with that?!? (And yes, she even changed “psyche” to Greek letters.)

The next excerpt is from the entry on endangered languages—except that it’s not. Phrases like “now happening at a breakneck pace” should be a tipoff; Wikipedia is not supposed to sound like that. It’s much clunkier. Next a single sentence from the language isolate page is misquoted. Then the programming language entry.

Was I supposed to notice this? Was I supposed to check? I didn’t check everything, and I don’t really see a rhyme or reason to the choices—except that they do all sound much better in Millet’s version.

So there is a big hole in my reading of the novel. A few of the reviews I read suggested that I may be a poor reader of Sweet Lamb of Heaven due to my almost complete lack of experience with the horror genre. But I might also say that the following description of how horror works, from Miller, is a significant reason I dislike it. She describes Millet’s novel as having

a sturdy narrative engine whose momentum, however familiar it may feel, proves irresistible. It propels the reader toward the expected apocalyptic confrontation between good and evil. But Millet’s fiction inhabits a different moral universe from King’s. In his novels, the nature of evil goes largely unquestioned; what concerns King is the task of summoning the courage to confront it. Sweet Lamb of Heaven uses the same epic devices to put forth a new idea of horror.

I think it’s that lack of explanation of the confrontation between good and evil that makes horror seem a bit empty to me. But this novel seemed mostly empty too; I’m not sure about that “new idea of horror.” Ned seemed pretty meaningless—where does he come from, after all? Where does the “legion” of other horrors come from, and why?

I do think there is something there, even though the novel really suffered for me as I got toward the end. The idea that there’s one voice out there, and you can only hear whatever part of it you can hear, is interesting, as are Anna’s musings on loneliness. I’d been all set to write about how I often found Millet’s endings hollow, or at least unable to deliver on the promise of her premises, but when I looked at some of the weaknesses in this case—namely, the lameness of Anna’s reliance on these Wikipedia texts and her seeming descent into fear and flakiness the longer she is embedded in the hotel (or, better, the longer she’s cut off from society)—I found that they were a whole new anomaly. Perhaps one that should spark a paradigm shift in my reading of the novel? If so, I am not yet sure what it would be.

*I was going to link to them all for you, but now I can just send you to LitHub.

**Meyer also says she asked herself, “When’s the last time I read a novel this explicitly pro-choice? And I don’t know!” I’m not really sure what this is referring to; I don’t recall anyone getting an abortion or even considering one, and the events of the novel are touched off when the narrator chooses to carry a child to term despite earlier plans not to have children, at least at the moment.

4 comments to “It’s what we want that we see, not what is

  • Hey, a negative-leaning review that made me want to read the book. What letter ya gonna give that, Book Marks??

    This is a fantastic review!

  • I can see how you could think “Is she going to pull this off?” And then how “this” turns out to be something less interesting than it first seemed.

    Do you think that anyone has written a novel, or story, entirely within Wikipedia, connected by links, hidden in corners unlikely to be scrubbed? Or is the scrubbing too thorough?

    Including actual Wiki text in your novel is a weird move. I am imaging an updated kind of Pale Fire which leads to Wikipedia rather than the index, and where the entries have subtle, disorienting clues that Zembla is real and Kinbote its king.

  • Laura—Thanks! I find it’s often mixed reviews that make me the most curious.

    Tom—Ha, what an idea.

    Yes, that’s exactly what this was like! Except I’m suspicious because no one else seems to have noticed anything amiss.

  • Perhaps there has been some genre blindness among the reviewers. “Horror is and does” etc. etc. and that is that.