In these stories, the only real home is a phone’s home screen

Lydia Millet’s new book documents modern-day America from Los Angeles.

 

The promo materials for Lydia Millet’s jarring new collection of short stories, Fight No More, say that the “12 interlocking stories set in Los Angeles describe a broken family through the homes they inhabit” and the work “explores what it means to be home.”

They got the number of stories right, and the setting, and the broken family theme. But these interlocking stories follow the individuals not through their homes, but rather the real estate they inhabit, and the cars they drive. This is, after all, Los Angeles in the present-day USA, where — in Millet’s telling — the only real home is our phone’s home screen, we occupy commodities that are easily “flipped” or abruptly foreclosed upon, and we spend the bulk of our time in a state of transience, watching from behind a windshield as our lives rush by.

By delving into the intimate, mundane details of the lives of a dozen characters, Millet presents us with a sort of exposé of the essence of L.A. — which is itself, in many ways, the apotheosis of the urban West.

Illustration by Ran Zheng

In this way, Fight No More reminded me of the works of Raymond Carver, that master of the Western short story. The Arizona-based Millet, a Pulitzer finalist, has a similarly twisted view of the world, with a quirkier sensibility and not quite so much cheap gin. Like Carver, she has a knack for inhabiting the people she writes about, giving the reader a sense of place and the zeitgeist through her characters’ eyes. This can be an uncomfortable, at times almost suffocating experience, especially when the character lacks introspection or self-awareness. That is certainly the case when we ride along with Pete, the sleaziest of a cast of substandard men and the main character of “I Can’t Go On,” as he coerces his teenaged stepdaughter, Lexie, into having sex. He succeeds — then has a fatal heart attack.

On the other hand, Aleska, an elderly Holocaust survivor-turned-scholar of the aesthetics of fascism, may be a bit too introspective for comfort — she gives us a clear-eyed view of our modern society, blemishes and all. This is how she remembers her late husband, for example: “Jake had liked to walk, could walk for hours and never get tired. Lived in California for decades but didn’t get used to cars. Fitting that he chose a car to die in, fitting that he chose gas. … He hated the American way of thought that said all things could be repaired, all things surmounted by a trick of attitude. History is trivial in this country, he said. Forgetting is the way to bliss. Ignorance is a badge of honor.”

Yes, Aleska had thought, in response, but, “Look what it gives them, Jake. … They’re always beginning. You begin again every day, when you have almost no memory. It’s a country of phoenixes!”

These distinctly Western-style phoenixes populate Millet’s stories as she explores this legendary land of reinvention. There’s 17-year-old Jeremy, who is “tall and pimpled and rangy, with the ass-crack-revealing jeans and an addiction to pot and masturbation.” After trying to sabotage the sale of his broken family’s home with a lewd trick, he decides to start acting with “dignity” — and succeeds. Or Lexie, whom we’re introduced to as a “blond chick from Carpinteria” whom Jeremy ogles on her pay-per-view porn website, and who escapes from her dysfunctional world to begin anew. Even Nina, at the insistency of her sister Marnie, half-heartedly attends a self-help seminar that promises to “redefine your future in three days.”

Yet this knack for reinvention, as uplifting as it seems, is sometimes vacuous. There are still the men who ditch their wives and lives for much younger women, trading in the old for the new, as if people and relationships are nothing more than real estate there for “flipping.” And, yes, even homes are born again, over and over again, as they are bought and sold with the flick of a pen. “But this was only a home, only her house,” Aleska thinks, as she packs up a few boxes of belongings to move into her son’s backyard guest cottage, “and even before she died the whole place would be taken apart methodically, no sentiment wasted.”

It’s a concise summation of this collection of stories: No sentiment wasted. There’s no emotional puffery, no nostalgia, just a hard-edged view of life, love, loss and pain and beauty, all playing out in a freedom-giving emptiness: “Here a woman in a Range Rover, a man in a Porsche, revving, revving,” Aleska observes as she walks through her son’s upper class neighborhood. “She passed each house in turn, each gate, each privacy hedge or showy rock garden, but as she passed them she also passed nothing at all. …”

Jonathan Thompson is a contributing editor at High Country News and the author of River of Lost Souls: The Science, Politics and Greed Behind the Gold King Mine Disaster

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