I purchased Lydia Millet’s My Happy Life some years ago on the strength of her book Oh Pure and Radiant Heart, which I remember being a tremendous read. I wonder now whether I’d feel the same way upon embarking on a re-read, as I’m deeply ambivalent about My Happy Life, a book that’s so painfully, mawkishly self-conscious that it’s hard not to look upon it with distaste.
Our unnamed narrator is a (possibly) mentally disabled young woman who has been left, forgotten, in an abandoned mental institution; in the weeks that have passed since she has been left behind in this existential purgatory, she has been quietly subsisting on tap water and on the memories of her life up until this point.
To an outsider, it is not a happy life, but rather an unrelenting march of abuse, neglect and exploitation. Found as an infant in a cardboard box, our narrator’s transient, in-between life continues with a slew of foster homes and abusive relationships that follow on from each other like the links of a brutal paper chain. And yet, our narrator sees the world through a lens of innocence and love: she sees beauty in the ugliest of things, is able to scratch out an iota of happiness from the darkest, most desultory thing.
Millet seems to be aiming for a sense of grace in the face of adversity, an inversion of the more usual approach of finding a gloominess and angst in the seemingly beautiful and virtuous. But the approach taken here is so extreme and affected that it’s difficult to stomach. Whether the overweening positivity is a coping mechanism or a genuine inability to grasp the bad in the world it just rings false. I found myself unable to reconcile the utterly guileless, ostensibly intellectually disabled nature of the narrator with the lyrical prose, and I couldn’t help but feel that the book felt overwritten and trite.
Take, for example, sentences like:
“The man of the house went on numerous trips and the woman of the house, who went and bought herself a new pedigree Pekinese, called Oscar Too on a tag that hung around his neck, also began to drink a vast array of fine intoxicants.”
“I gave up my bundle of possessions to the woman at the desk and was then led down a hallway. Its walls were close and seemed to have been washed in blue solutions of uncommon purity, which smelled very strong so that my eyes became teary. And the floor too had been stepped in blue solutions, so that they could not help but be breathed in with the oxygen.”
Even the narrator’s habitual, painfully understated response of “excuse me” to any of the horrors done to her never quite feels right; it sits uncomfortably within the narrative, a too polite, too measured, too neat reaction. In fact, this was my problem with the book as a whole. It reads like an extended literary affectation, the pointed unemotionality of it constantly setting my teeth on edge, the overwrought, over-polished prose an uncomfortably lingering guest casting a pall of literary construction over the book.
Ordinarily I love an unreliable narrator, but the conceit here doesn’t quite come off. Millet is a superb writer, but this book is a distinctly awkward intersection between story and storyteller, and on the whole it didn’t work for me.
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Other books by Lydia Millet: