Ghost Lights, Lydia Millet’s first book since her collection Love in Infant Monkeys was named a Pulitzer Prize finalist, takes us from the polished world of West L.A. to Belize, where a character who insists on being referred to as T. has disappeared. The novel is the second in a trilogy (coming after How the Dead Dream), but its main character, Hal—a fifty-year-old IRS agent sleepwalking through life ever since a car accident left his only daughter paralyzed—is a minor character in the first book, making Ghost Lights as good a place to jump in as any.
Hal himself jumps into action after spying on his wife as she cheats on him with a coworker almost half her age. Despite being ill suited for the task, he decides to follow “what was clearly an irrational impulse” and go to Belize to search for T., his wife’s very rich boss. But he doesn’t really care if he finds T. or not—in fact, he thinks, on the cab ride to his hotel, “I came here to escape my wife. My wife who may not love me after a quarter of a century.”
Hal’s personality, his propensity for inaction and turning inward—even as he’s forced to trek through the jungle, all he can think about is his own failing body—is Millet’s chief tool in examining the self-centered, obsessively self-aware mind of this mildly successful, educated white American male: “As a rule, he set too much store by thinking… he relied on it to the exclusion of other ways of filtering information.” Hal does end up making moves to help find T., but a workaholic German man he meets early on at the resort does most of the heavy lifting. Hal continually wishes he was more like the German, but naturally, he does little—aside from sleeping with the German’s wife—to become more like him.
Because the narration is grounded in Hal’s thoughts, it’s heavy on rumination and philosophy. The one thing Hal can’t escape is his mind, which continually returns to his wife and his wheelchair-bound daughter, Casey. The novel begins and ends with Hal thinking about Casey and is, in many ways, about the nature of parenting—its disappointments, its thrills. The book’s final moments establish parenthood as the one condition we can never escape, one worthy of such intense meditation.