Lydia Millet’s new book Fight No More is a curious thing: a collection of linked stories with the genuine thrust of a novel that doesn’t declare itself as such with the stamp NOVEL on the cover. The impression the book leaves is that Millet began with the notion of a panorama, a menagerie, or a hub with several spokes, until a set of characters took over her imagination. Whatever the cover may say, the book of interlinked stories is a modern invention and still going in books like Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge and Keith Gessen’s All the Sad Young Literary Men. Since Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, from 1919, and Ernest Hemingway’s Nick Adams Stories, which was posthumously assembled in 1972, the novel-in-stories has, typically, relied on a confined imagined geography or a central character, or both. It can be a frustrating genre if the stories neither stand up on their own nor connect with a novelistic spine. In Fight No More the mix of bone and tissue makes for a living thing.
Fight No More is Millet’s first story collection since Love in Infant Monkeys (2010), which was a finalist for the Pulitzer, one of her many close calls with the big prizes. Her last book, the thriller Sweet Lamb of Heaven, her tenth novel, was longlisted for the National Book Award. (She’s also the author of a series of eco-thrillers for young adults.) Her second novel, the slapstick masterpiece George Bush, Dark Prince of Love, established her as one of the funniest writers of American fiction, a rival of George Saunders, Paul Beatty, Nell Zink, and Donald Antrim. Millet pays little heed to the boundaries of realism and even less to those of class. She’s ferociously untame — free with the use of non-realist devices like time travel or mermaids — but also not immune to the pleasing strokes of the 19th-century novel, like romances across class lines or sudden inheritances. She takes on big political themes like environmental despoliation, structural inequality, and the bomb. Critics have noticed this all along, and if Millet isn’t as famous as she deserves to be, it’s only a matter of time.
Fight No More is set in Los Angeles — also the setting of a trilogy Millet completed in 2013 on the ecological and personal brutality of the city’s suburban development. The character who links these stories together is a real-estate agent named Nina. Real estate is an inherently banal subject, and people who really like talking about it are always boring. (Housing and land use as political issues are a different matter.) But Fight No More isn’t “about” real estate. The crisis of moving house is Millet’s way into the lives of a disparate set of characters. Nina’s clients are coming to the ends of things — of marriage, of life, of the existential rope. These ends set off new, usually diminished beginnings. There’s a lot of death in the book, some of it random and tragic, some of it a form of cosmic comeuppance.
A couple of the stories stand alone, both of them told from the point of view of heartbroken, ill-treated women. One of them is a woman touring a house with the man she thinks of as her boyfriend.
He insults her, tells her she’s ignorant: “When you’re out of your depth, remember. Silence is golden.” Worse, he lets slip to Nina that he has a fiancée who isn’t the woman who thought she would become his fiancée on the solid grounds that although he’s an asshole she’s been living with him for months and recently helped him pick out a ring. He leaves the house with her sobbing on a sofa. She takes revenge by defacing one of the works of modern art on the walls of the house, which seem to her childish and ugly, as if part of some bogus elitist plot. There’s room in Millet’s fiction for genuine villains and petty forms of revenge.
There’s also a place for mental illness and departures from realism. In “The Men,” a woman whose husband has left her — simply not coming home from work one day and running off with his secretary — finds that seven little men, “smaller than midgets but larger than cats — about the size of dachshunds,” have appeared to around her house to clear out her husband’s stuff, make dinner, do home repair and other mannish things like outdoor grilling. Nobody else can see these not-quite-elves, and one of her colleagues photoshops an image of her head on a drawing of Snow White and emails it around the office. The woman puts her house on the market with Nina as the agent. We learn in another story, in an offhand reference, that her name is Delia. Like many of Millet’s characters she’s good-hearted but not especially well-educated and has the sense that the world is trying to get one over on her. Here she is looking at her husband’s abandoned desk:
Empty, the bulletin board just a bunch of colored pushpins and a ragged old New Yorker cartoon, one of those ones that made no fucking sense. Wasn’t funny at all, that was a given, but also had no apparent meaning. Zero. Those cartoons, she’d always thought, were tests of something, and she failed the test. Who passed? She’d like to know. They put them in the magazine to enrage you. Smart people talking in code. Trying to bury you with their smartness. Like an autistic kid reeling off difficult calculations.
You have the sense that Millet could easily bury us in her smartness but has instead cleaved to the characters she’s created and made her humor generously broad. These are accessible fictions.
“The Men” is the central story in Fight No More and something of a turning point in the book. From here on the stories follow Nina and a family of clients that have moved into new homes after a traumatic divorce. The mother and son move into Delia’s house after we’ve seen them put their own on the market, an attempt the teenage boy, Jem, tries to sabotage by masturbating in his unlocked room while prospective buyers are looking at it. After this rude introduction he reappears as a highly sympathetic figure, coming to the aid of his father’s 17-year-old au pair, a victim of abuse at the hands of her stepfather — a plot line that takes over most of the stories in the second half of the book, when Fight No More, which at first seems loopy, vulgar, and, like private property itself, governed by arbitrary connections, takes on mounting emotional force.
Even real-estate transactions become poignant. Jem’s grandmother, Aleska, a Holocaust survivor and a professor with a specialty in fascist art, emerges as the book’s moral center and provides an old-fashioned happy ending. She’s the only character in the book with a sense of history or culture, aside from a group of musicians Nina shows a house to in the opening story. She starts dating one of them, falls in love, and is heartbroken when the man dies in a motorcycle accident. She’s left with his playlists and the task of selling his house.