Is there a writer more profound and less pretentious than Lydia Millet? In her novels and story collections, a dozen in all, Millet deals out existential questions like playing cards, and like any good casino dealer, her hands never shake. Her newest book, Fight No More, could easily be her most philosophically confident and complex work yet. It's a novel about death disguised as a story collection about real estate, and it's alternately wrenching and hilarious, peaceful and joyful, so tender you almost can't bear it and so brutal you know that you can't.
The book opens with Nina, a smart, lonely real estate agent, reading the Marquis de Sade in the bathroom of a house she's trying to sell. She spends the rest of the novel — which she ties together; she's everyone's realtor — considering Sade's libertines: Not the sex part, but the freedom. "Some people were statues all their lives," Nina thinks. "They feared the freedom of others, that others' freedom could end up hurting them ... But then, if you stood still like that, you couldn't go anywhere. And was it fair to blame the libertines for moving?"
Fight No More is full of questions, but Nina's is first and fundamental. Move, or stay still? Fight, or accept? Sometimes the answer is obvious. Take Jeremy, a teenager flailing in the wake of his parents' divorce. He wants to comfort his mother and be comforted in his turn, but all he can do is rebel. (Preferred strategies: weed, public masturbation, conversational Latin.) "He was supposed to be angry," he thinks. "He did the angry, [his mother] did the sad." But he wants to be sad. What he wants, it turns out, is to be good, to — this is how he puts it — "renounce Satan, the author and prince of sin." And sooner or later, he lets himself.
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But what about his grandmother Aleska, an academic in her 80s who sees her death rapidly approaching? She wants to fight it, but can't deny her physical decline. She tries to think like her late husband, a Holocaust survivor who loathed "the American way of thought that said all things could be repaired, all things surmounted by a trick of attitude." History can't be surmounted; nor can death. It's a myth to believe otherwise, and yet Aleska has "always come down on the side of the myths." To fight age is futile, she knows. She can't win, and yet she can't give up without losing herself.
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So she fights on behalf of Lexie, her 18-year-old caretaker, who arrives in the novel fleeing her sexually abusive stepfather, Pete. Millet gives us an outline of the abuse through Lexie's eyes, but the details come from Pete. He narrates a whole chapter. It's agony to read. Pete is unrepentant, a monster, and Millet brings all her deep gifts to bear in writing him: her acute human knowledge, her light-touch humor, the unfussy perfection of her prose. Readers of Edward St. Aubyn's Patrick Melrose novels will recognize the sensation of wanting desperately to stop reading, but finding themselves unable. The writing is just too good.
The payoff, thank God, is worth it. Fight No More is full of joys on every scale, but Lexie's liberation is its greatest by far. She is the only character for whom Millet asks us to imagine a future. At the end of the book, Lexie is neither fighting nor acquiescent. She's all potential energy, ready for motion. We've seen other characters in this state: Jeremy as he renounces the twin Satans of porn and pot (he never gets over the Latin), Nina when she meets the man she will love.
Even by her own high standard, Millet is exceptional in these moments of possibility. She writes them with equal parts wildness and straightforwardness, certainty and the certainty of impermanence. Mostly, you're fighting or you've given up. Mostly, you're a libertine or a statue. But every so often, you get to feel yourself, as Nina puts it, "moving through time, for once. You went along at the same pace for so long that it felt like you were standing still; then something shifted and suddenly life was rushing past. Not in the sense of disappearing, but in the sense of happening."
If Fight No More has a thesis, this is it. We are so rarely able to feel life happening. When we do, nine times out of ten, it's because we're aware of its end. But that tenth time, you get the libertines' freedom, or Jeremy's ascent to grace. You get Aleska's last walk around the block. You get love, or art, or beauty. Whatever you get, it's ephemeral, but hold onto it anyway. Savor it. Fight for it until you can fight no more. Lily Meyer is a writer and translator living in Washington, D.C. Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.