LYDIA MILLET has done it again: plunged readers into weird, wondrous waters. Lucky for us, her waters are a tropical aquamarine and they’re inhabited by real live mermaids — if also everyone who wants to capitalize on them. Millet has long been revered for her writing on humans’ precarious and discordant relationship with the natural world, and in Mermaids in Paradise, her 10th novel for adults, she has given us a wild, unpredictable work of freewheeling satire.
Deb, our narrator, a sharp-tongued Stanford MBA, marries Chip, a devoted video gamer with a quaint/stupid affection for the American Heartland and its inhabitants — except for what he terms the religious hysterics, “a subculture so large it’s bigger than the rest of us.”
Deb keeps a poster of Jeff Koons’s “defiantly ugly” “Hulk Elvis” in her corner office. Koons’s series of “Hulk Elvis” works feature a muscle-bound, green-skinned Hulk/Elvis hybrid with a violent posture and a dumb open mouth. These bright, loud, expensive, familiar yet impersonal and nonsensical images are ideal for a person like Deb who, like Koons, is hyper-aware of cultural standards and idiom. She is, at the book’s opening, especially aware of wedding customs— the “infantile aesthetics” of a bachelorette party or the drinking habits of a bride.
[…] I didn’t want certain so-called traditional aspects of wedding receptions, that is, the aspects that are repulsive. No feeding each other wedding cake, for instance, then mashing it around the oral region like giant babies. Strict pedophile/infantile thematic. Also no disturbing miniature bride and groom dolls perched upon the cake with glassy smiles, a serial killer’s dream of love.
Meanwhile, her cheerful Chip offers up various honeymoon plans, each more awful than the next: a cruise with the morbidly obese in fluorescent clothes; the Peaks of the Himalayas, a shark and stingray feeding package “with round-trip fare included, optimistically”; volcano bicycle camping, snowshoeing on glaciers. Deb gamely entertains the notion of every possible scenario, open to them all. “Chip yearned for daring exploits; I didn’t so much yearn as just not want to have any.”
The couple agree on the British Virgin Islands, a conveniently located offshore financial center which most closely resembles their natural habitat in Southern California, except for the white sand and the cocktail proffering staff who are by turns doting and sinister as they drive Deb and Chip to and fro in golf carts. “It was a shame the whole world didn’t resemble this resort,” says our heroine, as she and her new husband “jiggled inertly like the human cargo that we were.”
Deb and Chip are trapped in the over-determined world of the white middle-class American honeymoon. Deb spots the clichés a mile away — attraction to good looking, servile resort professionals, the dawning disappointment that as husband and wife, she and Chip are no longer fornicating; the nagging issue of the economic gulf that separates her, in her sumptuous hotel room, from the working poor — but she still falls prey to them.
I wanted to ask Chip if he thought the fact that the whole world doesn’t look like a beautiful resort was just a question of money — grinding poverty vs. repugnantly excessive wealth. Was it just money, or was money not really the main problem? For instance, I often hear it said that people don’t starve because there’s not enough food in the world, they starve because the food’s not always in the right places. Is it the same way with beauty? Is there, in fact, plenty to go around?
The island of Virgin Gorda is beautiful and luxurious, hideous and boring. Nothing to do but eat, swim, snorkel, drink cocktails, and have married sex. If you’re a thrill seeker like Chip, you make friends. On their first night, the romantic dinner for two turns into dinner for seven in the motion sickness–inducing floating restaurant built out over the bay. “And here we were with our table for many, long enough for the Last Supper, practically. We were the biggest floater in the pond.” Unlike her husband, Deb has few kind words for anyone but she can crack wise.
Among their dinner companions is Nancy Simonoff, marine biologist and parrotfish expert. It is Nancy who discovers the mermaids. She enlists Deb and Chip to snorkel off the coral reef with her to try and spot them again. Which they do, setting off another set of plots — a murder mystery, a quest, a high seas adventure — Millet has them all hurtling along together. Sure, the novel gets pretty unruly once the mermaids appear, but the (sometimes hard to keep track of) pack of ironic, paranoid, phobic, grenade-wielding Americans, and one hilarious fake Brit Millet unleashes on the shores of this hilltop resort are the perfect foils for the greedy “locals” who waste no time in developing the reef as a mermaid-sighting locale. A mer-zoo. “After we saw the banner for the so-called Venture of Marvels I didn’t know whether to feel invisible or paranoid,” says Deb. In no time every room on the island is booked, every yacht chartered.
Chip’s expertise in the virtual world has prepared him for just this sort of fantasy/enviro-emergency situation. He’s physically intrepid (in fact, instead of submitting to a traditional bachelor party, Chip ran an extreme mud half marathon with obstacles, including a 10,000 volt jolt to the face at the finish line), he is easily kind towards his fellow humans, and happily dons a snorkel and tips off the edge of the powerboat in search of mermaids when implored by the enthusiastic, possibly delusional, parrotfish expert. No sweat. He’s eager to lead a team of ragtag good guys and confront the greedy hotel management. Our Deb is the weak link. Back in Brentwood she’s an expert number cruncher, but in her own honeymoon adventure, dressed in a bikini and sarong, she gets herself kidnapped. “I was in a bad situation, and really the person I had to blame it on was me, me and my personality, which, as a prisoner with nothing at all to do, I was now free to worry about.”
Additional ironic/hysteric characters appear to enact a rescue plot. Though Deb is not the most capable protagonist you’ve ever encountered, she is an exhaustive observer with comedic tics, such as making word fractions to get a closer, more exact meaning. Funereal/whorish attire, buzzed debasement/elevation, an invalid/shut-in aspect, startlement/amazement, hypochondria/panic attack — as the stakes get higher, Deb is less able to choose between words. This propensity of Millet’s becomes stranger and funnier as it progresses, like most of the characters and action in the novel. Gina, the failed academic, and Ellis, a dentist from Teaneck, New Jersey, with a convincing Masterpiece theater accent, arrive on Virgin Gorda to help their old friend Deb, but “honeymoon or no honeymoon” they had to be in on the mermaids.
At each twist and turn, Millet forces Deb, Chip, and their ragtag team of mermaid protectors to choose between dyads: capitalism and leaving well enough alone, mermaids with flowy blonde hair and science deniers; life and death. “On the one hand you had the religious hysterics, obesely advancing with their ignorance. On the other hand, to oppose them, all you had was some thin effetes from the city, hiding behind a flimsy row of high-irony deflecting shields.” Much of the fun of this novel comes from seeing which way the characters fall.
Millet is a bold, idiosyncratic storyteller and satirist — she always goes for the jokes and most of the time she hits them. Occasionally, the prose strains. Without putting readers uncomfortably on the spot, she highlights the troubles of our civilization — and the troubles with us. In turn, we readers face the same questions as Deb and Chip: Could you suspend your beliefs when confronted with bizarre but observable facts (such as dead humans and live mermaids) and assimilate the knowledge quickly enough to act on their behalf? Would you risk your neck to help a stranger? What lengths would you go to make a buck? Does the future matter? Do you even believe our planet has much of one? Millet tackles these hard questions while entertaining us with honeymooners and mermaids in this singular tropical romp.