Writers & Company

Lydia Millet's novel A Children's Bible is an imaginative reckoning with climate change

The Toronto-raised American novelist spoke with Eleanor Wachtel about how she sees the world — and why she welcomes the anger of young people about environmental issues.
Lydia Millet is an American novelist and short story writer. (Nola Millet)

A devastating storm, a gathering of animals, and a baby born in a stable are among the extraordinary events that resonate in Lydia Millet's latest novel, A Children's Bible. A prophetic story imbued with wit and urgency, it was a National Book Award finalist and named a top five fiction title of 2020 by the New York Times.

Millet is the prize-winning author of 11 novels, two collections of short stories and four books for young readers. Her work, in all its variety of setting, style and theme, is infused with a dark sense of humour and sharp political awareness. Her most recent story collection, Fight No More, deals with the world of high-end Los Angeles real estate — taking us into the homes and lives of a range of offbeat characters.

Millet was raised in Toronto but lives now in Arizona. She spoke to Eleanor from her home in the Sonoran Desert outside Tucson.

Spaces we inhabit

"I had a friend who was a real estate agent for a while. What struck me about her professional life was how she was invited into these intimate spaces of strangers. 

"It seemed like a form of voyeurism, how she became a part of their domestic life. Even when she didn't wish to, or they didn't wish her to, the very fact that she was present made her this odd extension of their family. 

"I thought it would be intriguing to write about a real estate agent who intrudes, albeit by invitation, into the homes of strangers and sees part of their lives through a stranger's eyes. 

"I have pack rats who live around my house, here in the desert. They collect all kinds of things to bring back to their underground burrows. Sometimes it's cactus, and sometimes it's pieces of garbage. It's somewhat opaque to me what they're collecting the plastic garbage for.  

"Sometimes you can tell that they're trying to heat up their homes with bits of insulation or fabric — but other times it's broken plastic toys, and you don't know what their collection is in aid of. 

I thought it would be intriguing to write about a real estate agent who intrudes, albeit by invitation, into the homes of strangers and sees part of their lives through a stranger's eyes.

"People are also pack rats. We're hoarders, and we create with the things that we buy, the things that we put in our homes, these sorts of scenes for display, which is how we advertise ourselves to each other in various ways and to various degrees of success.

"Some people are expert high-end hoarders, and other people are barely hoarders at all. But we all try to make our homes into places that we can be comfortable in. 

"Some of us are more oriented toward making our homes into showcases. The houses that I was writing about in this story collection tend more to be like that."

Death and loss

"Death and loss are threaded through our lives and through our homes. There's a way in which a home is the extended body of a family — and the leaving of a home is a kind of loss. 

"I lived in the same place in Toronto, on Castlefield Avenue, from when I was two until I went away to college. But my parents kept living there until my father died. And so, by the time my mother sold the house, they'd been there for 40 years or more.

The longer we live in a place, we become embedded in it, or it becomes embedded in us, whether we want it to be or not.

"It was very strange for me — even though I hadn't lived there for years by the time my mother left — to have the house go away from our family.

"The longer we live in a place, we become embedded in it, or it becomes embedded in us, whether we want it to be or not. It's invested with so much memory that separation from place can be like a separation from people or from other things we love. 

The generational divide

"A Children's Bible is about a particular generational schism and also a particular class, or even subset within a class. It is not the super wealthy, but the very wealthy — the quite wealthy, the well-off — although there is some variation in the group of parents in the novel, in terms of their socioeconomic status. 

"But basically, they're arty and educated people who are not climate change deniers, but simply inactive. They are dismissive of reality, but not deniers of science. I think it's a position that a lot of people, the sort of liberal or progressive people of my generation, have found themselves in. 

"In the novel, the children — they're more teenagers than young children — are disgusted and angry at that inaction or inactivism of the parents. The children are upset with their parents' passivity over the decades in the face of these threats that are going to make the world a much more frightening place for the children that they've chosen to bring into it. 

A Children's Bible is about a particular generational schism and also a particular class or even subset within a class.

"I wanted to look at parenthood, as well as at the rage of the young, which I've been quite inspired by recently. Greta Thunberg, for example — she's the most famous example — but there are many, many, many others in the Sunrise Movement and Extinction Rebellion. We're seeing a righteous and good-hearted rage — if rage can be good-hearted.

"It's the kind of rage that comes about because of injustice, rather than the kind of rage that comes about from hatred and xenophobia and fear. "

The decline of the public good

"It's interesting how we define parenthood in the mainstream culture — and how we don't define it. This book wants to look at the very narrow definition that many of us in my generation and older seem to have had of what it is to be a parent — that parenthood is the caretaking of your own children, but not other people's children, and not the world that those children have to live in. So the children in this book look at that definition of parenthood that their parents seem to have, and reject it.

"I think that narcissism is a good way to describe much of the dominant culture right now. We're taught, very clearly, that life and the story of our life is the story of selves — and that the self is the centre of all narrative and that other selves close to us are the site of all emotional fulfilment. 

I think that narcissism is a good way to describe much of the dominant culture right now.

"We're no longer taught to honour our descendants, our ancestors, or the larger body politic. We're not taught civic duty anymore in schools, or civics in general. We're not really told that we have a responsibility to honour the community anymore. 

"Certainly in the U.S., that was highly visible in the anti-masking movement — and still is. It's not over. They see that as a form of freedom, a gesture of freedom. So endangering other people and the larger community is transmuted into an entitlement to liberty.

"Which, I think, is tragic and sad. It speaks to the decline of notions of greater good and sacrifice and honour that we had used to at least give lip service too."

Lydia Millet's comments have been edited for length and clarity.
 

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