My Happy Life, by Lydia Millet. Henry Holt and Company. 149 pages. $20.
A woman is locked away and forgotten in a mental hospital that has closed. While waiting for the wrecking ball, she recounts her life of abuse and neglect. This is the plot of Lydia Millet's freakish new novel -- a fictional memoir that is ingenious but dismal and, mercifully, short.
Unlike the searing, true memoir Girl Interrupted, Susanna Kaysen's insightful account of her two-year stay in a psychiatric hospital, Millet's book is neither moving nor darkly funny. It seems more an exercise than a fully realized novel -- a chance to experiment, to see how creatively one can write about abandonment, rape, bondage, torture and all manner of depravity.
Millet is a talented novelist who has said she scorns the cultural expectation of fiction writers to "uplift" or "redeem." One can only imagine this short book as her payback. There is nothing uplifting about My Happy Life. And certainly nothing happy, except the narrator's naive outlook on her victimization.
There is, though, something almost redeeming. And that is Millet's style, her command of the language, and her remarkable imagination. Even writing in the voice of the wise but twisted narrator, Millet's prose sparkles. She has a keen sense of the dramatic. On every page is a startling surprise.
In Mrs. Ray, the heartless social worker; Caesar, the boy who beats the narrator senseless; and Mr. D, the sado-masochist who tortures then impregnates her, unimaginable cruelty is imagined and brought to life. In each twisted character, each scene from a life of horror, the reader discovers something alluring. Like the horrific accident we pass on the road, we can not help but stop and stare.
The allure lies in Millet's flights of imagination. Consider the narrator's account of her birth:
"Myself I came from a box marked Brown Ladies Narrow 8, which had been left on a street. So I spent some of the first times I recall in a building not unlike how this one used to be: immense and patrolled by a legion of Mrs., who were often quite large and portly." Mrs. Ray is the Mrs. who tells this young woman about finding the box on the sidewalk in a pouring rain. She "saw that it contained something naked, cold, blue and slippery."
Even when the narrator falls into the hands of the grotesque Mr. D, the story line begins seductively. Mr. D appears to be a kind benefactor, a man who brings chocolate to the young woman, now homeless, then gently lures her from the streets to a room that appears warm and safe. By the time Mr. D's evil intentions come clear, it is too late for both the narrator and the reader. The torture begins, and the reader is equally hostage -- drawn ever deeper into the story in a search for meaning.
This reader found the journey futile. And that's too bad, for Millet is a powerful writer with an inventive mind.
Jan Winburn has written for newspapers and magazines for more than 20 years. Enterprise editor at The Sun, she worked at The Hartford Courant and The Philadelphia Inquirer before coming to Baltimore.