Annotation by Telaina Eriksen
When students of writing read Lydia Millet, it is an exercise in humility. Millet earns her much-deserved reputation again with this deceptively slim novel and its haunting, autistic prose. In My Happy Life, our narrator, whose name is never spoken or mentioned, has been “forgotten” in an insane asylum which has been scheduled for demolition. Alone, with just running water and a small box of artifacts from her life, she proceeds to write her life story on the walls of the room that will surely become her coffin. She calls her life a happy one. The irony of this is so deep and rich, one can barely begin to touch on it in a two-page annotation.
This work is so darkly funny, so black and beautiful, sad and touching. Millet’s command over language and metaphor, her way of tipping things upside down to look at them makes this a unique and challenging work. Horrible thing after horrible thing visits our narrator. She calls herself stupid, but she is also gifted. She has a different way of looking at things and undoubtedly suffered brain damage not only at her birth (prematurely and then placed in a shoe box and given to the state) but by the beatings she suffered as a child. She becomes partly crippled when hit by a car. She is kicked out of school, farmed out to abusers at foster homes and all the while her voice arises from description of these events—with an urgent understatement, innocence and earnestness. Our narrator doesn’t know why anything happens in the world (“I am in charge of nothing” she says on page 40) but you can almost hear Millet ask the reader if any of us really do.
The structure of the book surrounds important objects in the narrator’s life—a tooth, a towel, a leaf, and the shoe box (the one her newborn body was shoved into) which holds all of these artifacts. The narrator describes how each object came into the box and she seems disconnected in some very obvious way from her happy life. But as her trials continue, she gets pregnant by the sadist who has imprisoned her and repeatedly beaten and raped her (she is less than 20 years old at the time). After she has the child, Brother, she calls him, her wispiness fades and she focuses on the baby boy, really happy and very maternal for someone so deeply… reality-challenged. The sadist, who has always wanted a son, drugs her and leaves her in a hotel room, with only her shoe box and a stack of cash, taking Brother and leaving, the narrator suspects, the country.
A substantial part of the book follows where our narrator is much more focused in her happy life because she has to look for Brother. “And I knew what Mr. D. had practiced on me and that he was not prone to charity. Because the tools from the past centuries, and the wires and the knives, might have been all right for me but they could not be plied on Brother. For Brother there could be no history.” (90)
We believe the narrator because of her innocence, her understatement and her constant misunderstandings of the world. She is guileless and toward the end, very probably certifiably insane due to electroshock and starvation. But still we believe her perceptions. The narrator’s grace with language is also believed because of the segmentation—gifted in this area, naïve and clueless in this other one. This gives Millet much to work with in terms of her structure. Her novel is at once straightforward and nuanced. The reader follows the narrator between reflections about ghosts and dreams, memories and the future, and the unreliability of the ocean.
Millet’s originality shines throughout the piece. It is even more impressive if one has read previous works of hers. Her range as a writer is amazing—comic, subversive, strange, slapstick, literary, touching, believable and poetic. If a writer is prone to envy or feelings of inadequacy, he/she needs to stay far clear of My Happy Life, and Millet’s other works as well.