October 2014

Will George


Mermaids in Paradise by Lydia Millet

Mermaids don't have asses. Or do they? Those fishy tails may replace conventional human asses, but doesn't a mermaid still have a kind of fish ass? Surely mermaids can sit down -- say, on a seaweedy rock or a whale's back -- and doesn't that prove that they have an organ which does the sitting, namely an ass?

I never gave these questions much thought until Pulitzer finalist Lydia Millet blew my preconceptions about mermaids out of the figurative water. Mermaids in Paradise, her thirteenth book of fiction and first of speculative ichthyology, challenges the received idea that mermaids can sit down at all. It also suggests that mermaids have bad teeth. Apart from the anatomy, it considers how the world might react to an actual mermaid encounter. An ancient maritime superstition turns out to be true: how does that reflect on other matters of faith? How would landlubbers relate?

Short answer: not well. Mermaids in Paradise looks satirically at the likeliest human reactions -- xenophobia and intellectual obstinacy, of course. Though it isn't a neat fit with the mermaid theme, most of the humor exploits a certain class antagonism, which (by design) will delight some and provoke the rest.

The plot starts like a conventional bourgeois comedy-romance. Narrator Deb and buff new husband Chip take their honeymoon in the British Virgin Islands. Deb needs a break from her unspecified corporate identity, complete with corner office and Stanford MBA; Chip toils as an insurance adjuster who missed his calling as an extreme sportsman. Oddly, both characters have grown preoccupied -- and revulsed -- by the social class just beneath them: heartland-dwelling "Middle Americans" the narrator portrays as religious, illiberal, and obtuse. So Deb and Chip visit the Caribbean partly to flee what they regard as an unsavory demographic. Then there's the small matter of consummating their marriage. The book leaves that part to the reader's imagination.

However they try, somehow Deb and Chip just can't escape their disdain for their social inferiors. It's not just that "Middle Americans" have stolid religious views. It's not just that they're modestly educated. Unforgivably, they're fat.

I thought of where the fat was, in this world, and particularly in our home country. In fact the fat was mostly settled on the poor people, the poor and the working class...

... also there's the fact that, among the tragically, morbidly obese in our nation, especially the white people, many are also religious hysterics. There seems to be a link, statistically, between the obesity epidemic and the religious hysterics, morbid obesity and extreme right-wing politics, and then again between those politics and stupidity ... What's more, many of these aspects are also linked to what Chip liked to call Middle America.

So in this book "Middle America" comprises a dismal nexus of poverty, stupidity, faith, and flab.

What does that have to do with mermaids? Deb and Chip's cynical remarks on this untouchable caste set up the book's twist: during an undersea tour, a close encounter with the mermaids forces the couple to embrace a superstition more preposterous than anything they've disparaged. What an irony. Mermaids really do exist, all scales, tails, bad teeth, and no asses to sit on.

Following a suspicious death, the plot veers into a murder mystery. But the book doesn't really aim at the armchair sleuth. It tends mainly to class-baiting comedy, more humorously expressed through the ridicule of some class-marked supporting characters than by the opinions of the protagonists. In one of the book's funniest moments, Deb meets a married, avowedly conservative "Middle American" who turns out to be a foot fetishist -- a toe-fetishist, in fact:

"I'm a toe man... And yours are top-notch. Grade A. So hot."

"You're kidding me," I said. "Is this something -- is there a hidden camera?"

"A lot of people feel it's not cheating if it's the toes," he went on...

"Just the toes that what?" I said, and then regretted it.

"That share intimacy," he said. "Toe-genital intimacy."

You're not a cheat if it's the feet? Nice, but it seems like Millet rolls in this Toe Man character just to remind the reader that "Middle Americans" can be unfaithful perverts. Or take this scene where Deb, the corner-office-dwelling Stanford MBA, visits a struggling tattoo artist's workshop:

I saw photos displayed of armpit work, photos of naked-chested people raising their arms above their heads, and in those armpits were tattoos ... One man had women's legs tattooed in his fishbelly-white armpits -- a pair of disembodied legs in garter stockings and red high heels, one leg-pair per armpit. The legs were spread wide ... to reveal betwixt them both a nest of springy armpit hair.

I turned away from the tattoo tent, feeling one's idealism might be sullied there.

One excuses the snobbery for its comic effect, but one hopes that Mermaids in Paradise doesn't indulge snobbery for its own sake. It isn't always clear. The haughty narrator acts like an inveterate prig, and it's suspicious that the book doesn't ridicule the middle class half as much as the "Middle Americans." Then again, it's the sign of effective baiting when the reader gets mildly provoked -- in this case by apparently gratuitous head-kicks to the socially downtrodden, the poor, the fat.

As for style, Mermaids in Paradise reads snappily, sometimes pausing for an exemplary set piece of observational humor. Before her wedding Deb reflects:

I'd never been a fan of bridal showers, or baby showers either, really. A shower of any kind seems like a place for brain deficiency -- women squeal during those showers, squeal at the sight of trivial objects. A bridal shower features frilly underwear to make the new wife look more like a prostitute; a baby shower peddles frilly bonnets you drape around a newborn's face to make it look less like a garden gnome.

Cue applause. The book is worth picking up just for passages like that. But be warned: Mermaids in Paradise contains a high incidence of conversational cliché -- "like a bat out of hell," "a few sheets to the wind," "let's get the hell outta Dodge," "stocked to the gills." To me it isn't worth tormenting the reader with stock phrases just to make dialogue sound naturalistic. But not all readers will care. Some will positively thrill to rediscover the weary idioms they already hear several times a day.

Disregard the ickiness of the stuck-up narrator, ignore some trite phrases, and what's left? A well-rounded, socially controversial nautical satire with a solid plot, perfectly timed set pieces, and memorable grotesque characters, genuinely funny down to its shock ending.

Mermaids in Paradise by Lydia Millet
W. W. Norton & Company
ISBN: 978-0393245622
304 pages