2014 may go down as the year of the out-of-left-field twist ending. Back in February, Helen Oyeyemi rounded out her eerie, racially charged retelling of “Snow White” with a last-minute, gender-bending revelation that proved controversial. Readers of Mermaids in Paradise—the latest novel by the equally intelligent and prolific writer Lydia Millet—can take comfort in the fact that its own concluding swerve has none of the unsavory implications that regrettably cling to Oyeyemi’s otherwise standout novel. Better yet, the twist—though unexpected—does what it’s supposed to do: It recasts the events that preceded it in a way that makes you want to reread the novel. Unfortunately, it will also likely make you wish that what preceded it was a stronger, more reliably engaging read. Though Mermaids in Paradise is a highly (and deservedly) memorable novel, it suffers from tonal problems that temporarily threaten to eclipse its wit and inventiveness.
Like its titular mermaids, Millet’s latest book is a strange, hybrid beast. Its dust jacket describes it as a “sendup of the American honeymoon,” but that doesn’t quite capture the way it zigzags crazily between an absurdist comedy, a political thriller, and an environmentalist takedown of modern capitalism. Mermaids in Paradise is the story of newlyweds Deb (savvy/snarky) and Chip (affable, with a touch of charming naiveté), and their less-than-idyllic honeymoon at a Caribbean resort. What begins as a half caustic, half forgiving commentary on the excesses and banalities of modern-day luxury travel takes an abrupt turn for the bizarre when Deb, Chip, and a marine biologist/fellow guest discover a school of mermaids in the waters surrounding the resort. From there, the novel follows the efforts of the trio, as well as a handful of other benevolently eccentric vacationers, to protect the mermaids from the rapacious (if frequently bungling) attempts of the resort to capitalize on their presence.
Mermaids in Paradise is a book that nearly always opts for the weird and unexpected over the familiar, but it is not ultimately Millet’s genre-defying ways per se that undermine the novel’s success. Millet takes big risks, to be sure, but they often pay off in scenes that are hilariously surreal, surprisingly thoughtful, or both. Take Deb’s slipshod, high-end kidnapping at the hands of the resort. It is an episode that is, at first glance, entirely comedic in its incongruity; Deb—waylaid in the midst of a crowded resort but too self-conscious to scream—is locked in “Conference Room B,” from which she proceeds to text her friend Gina (“Kidnapped … Locked in a room in our resort. Chip coming to save me (hope). Saw real mermaids”) before picking the lock on the door with a bobby pin. As Deb’s surprisingly blasé response to the crisis underscores, there is a pervasive sense of unreality to the scene that largely deflates whatever tension had been mounting in the novel’s more thriller-like moments; we don’t really believe that people like Deb get kidnapped by nefarious corporate entities—much less nefarious corporate entities with so strong a streak of ineptitude—so we can sit back and laugh at the comfortably unlikely weirdness of the scene. And yet, it is precisely the farcical way in which the kidnapping plays out that gives it its effective edge. Consider, first, the resort’s mismanagement; isn’t there something terrifying about the fact that such an incompetent organization wields so much money and power? And then there is Deb’s reluctance to create a scene—comical, to be sure, but there is a hint of real desperation to her analysis of it:
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. Who the hell wouldn’t scream, being kidnapped like that? I’d been abducted in broad daylight and I hadn’t even put up a fight. There was something wrong with me, and now I had plenty of time to ponder that.
If incompetence and unproductive self-awareness are such depressingly reliable mainstays of human experience, it should horrify us all that we are now in a position where we can change the course of history for all life on Earth.
So far, so good. The problem occurs when Millet tries to knock the wind out of satire itself. The promotional blurb for Mermaids in Paradise describes the “tempering” effect of the book’s “empathy and subtlety” on Millet’s characteristic dark humor. The problem, for me, is that the novel’s attempts at earnestness too often feel forced, and thus fail to truly justify any detours from the bite of Deb’s narration.
To be clear, there is something commendable about Millet’s efforts to overwhelm Deb’s wry observations with an awareness of the full splendor of the natural world. As Deb herself says at one point, “[Gina] and her other friends all raised their ironic shields … instead of being willing to fight. Just lifted the shields and held them there.” Heavy-handed as Deb’s remark is, it bears fleshing out in more detail. It is, at the very least, worth wondering why we are so inclined to look mercifully on those who go about their lives with a kind of self-aware, ironic detachment—as if acknowledging one’s complicity in a problem were the same as working to solve it. But clearly, it’s not really okay to do anything as long as you do it with a wink and a nudge. And while Deb is an astute and entertaining narrator who cuts to the heart of her society’s pretenses, a kind of inertia pervades her life; early in the novel, at least, she is content to sit by and watch, cocktail in hand, as the world disintegrates around her. “My concern is that extreme sports are maybe a red herring,” she says as Chip prepares for a half-marathon through a muddy obstacle course. “If people want to put so much effort into testing their toughness, if they want to prove they’re not afraid of hardship, why not travel as Good Samaritans to famine-ridden or war-torn countries? Or for the rebel, punk-rock types, maybe bomb missile factories? You know—do something productive?” Still, her ability to see through the hypocrisy and self-indulgence of such posturing doesn’t stop her from knocking back margaritas in a swanky hotel bar as she watches the race on TV.
Deb’s encounter with the mermaids changes all that. One suspects that she’s always been a closet idealist, given how enthusiastically she goes about trying to save the mermaids from the webs (or nets) of corporate greed. And in the final pages of the book, there is something genuinely, painfully touching about her hope that the power and beauty of the natural world will ultimately resurface, if only long after she herself is gone:
I should appreciate the sand, I thought. The parrotfish expert had said it … the white sands would be leaving us soon.
Maybe they would appear in another time and place, I comforted myself. There were so many stars. These days the scientists said a zillion planets might support carbon-based life, out there. Maybe a planet in a triple-star system would grow these fish with pouty lips, these hills of white sand beneath clear saltwater.
Over the history of the earth, I learned in high school biology, the eyeball has evolved, died out, and then evolved again. The eye can’t be kept down.
Maybe the fish couldn’t be kept down either, the fish and their beautiful reefs.
It is only in these final moments, though, that Deb’s more earnest musings achieve this level of depth. Too often, the mermaids are a static, naïve, and unexplored symbol of all that is pure and good—one that inspires a painfully childlike fascination in the novel’s protagonists (“The mermaids are very special,” one character solemnly intones) and an equally overdrawn hatred amongst America’s evangelical Christians. What ties these disparate reactions together is a certain strained, overly simplistic air; however plausible they are as baseline responses to the mermaids, their execution lacks the deftness and nuance that characterizes, for example, Millet’s portrait of corporate corruption. The unfortunate result is that the zany, pointed humor of the novel at times nearly disappears amidst truisms and platitudes.
For this reason, perhaps it is best to look at Mermaids in Paradise as a transitional novel—albeit one that is highly successful at times. There is something tentative about Millet’s efforts to blend satire and heartfelt appeal, as her occasional brushes with cliché demonstrate. Still, the end result is something truly distinctive, and if Millet continues to experiment in a similar vein, her next novel could be one to look out for.
Mermaids in Paradise was published in November 2014 by W. W. Norton & Company.
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