My Happy Life.
When I wasn't busy eating Lydia Millet's latest book alive, I spent some time musing over Anne Horowitz's cover art. The bottom of the book is a deep soft rose, the color of thin clouds at sunset, reflecting the day's last hurrah before nightfall. Gently it fades from pink to eggshell white at the top. In the bottom right quarter of the book, a baby, soft and also pink, is curled up sleepily. The title, My Happy Life, steps gently across the cover in thin, unobtrusive letters.
It looks like a Mommy book, another heartwarming memoir about sleepless nights and breastfeeding and discovering what Love Really Means.
There's a familiarity about the contrast between the inside of the book and the outside which reminds me of an old Amy Irving movie. Toward the end of the movie, Irving is walking down a street, flowers in her hand. She stops in front of the remains of an old house, smiles, and kneels. As her hand reaches down to plant the flowers in front of the house. Just as she does this, Carrie White's hand thrusts up out of the dirt and clutches Irving in a deathgrip, forcing her to join the dead little telekinetic in Hell.
Let this analogy be a lesson to you, O seeker of the Mommy book: offer My Happy Life no bouquet of flowers. Because it will kill you.
I think I pushed that metaphor too far. Anyway, the point is that after the gentle sweetness of the cover, the first chapter places the anonymous protagonist in the decaying bowels of an abandoned mental hospital, locked in a room, forgotten, and left to slowly starve to death. The shampoo and toothpaste long since eaten, she begins to write her life story on the walls around her. Astonishingly, her central message is one of gratitude and love, and a sense of good fortune for the life she had.
A life that was, by anyone's account, awful. The memoirist recounts an endless chain of horrific abuse, starting with her abandonment at birth, left in a shoebox on a random street, and continues with a string of wretched foster care and unspeakable torture by just about everyone she meets. She frames each situation in such a way that often it must be read twice to discern what is her dreamy perception and what is the terrible truth.
When she writes about her childhood as a ward of the state, she says, about her relationship with the other children:
Sometimes in the bed where I slept with the others, in the waiting place, they would press themselves close on both sides of me. They liked to kick out with their feet and fold my skin in pleats between their hard fingers and fingernails. They called this game the meat sandwich: they were always the bread and I was always the meat. My ribs were crushed in tight when I was the meat, as though my heart would burst....And after a while they would forget the sandwich and nestle, and there was the warmth of them and the salty skin and milky breath. I always have recalled these touches since they were among the first I knew. As for the bruises, shortness of breath and the pressing on me, I think they did not know their own strength.
Millet has created a painful story of the particular kind of despair born out of homelessness and mental illness, and the strength shown in waiting patiently, even when it is clear no help is coming. Desertion is a constant theme throughout the novel. So much is lost, and so very little is gained. The few things she has that are genuinely good, such as a brief friendship made with another little girl that brings her so much pleasure it aches when it, too, is lost. While the reader may assign positive or negative value to each of her experiences, she rarely does. And when she finally does recognize her own suffering, she must shut it down - if not for her sake, then for the readers. In an awesome touch, Millet breaks down the chapters in three parts: the present day, a memory in which something is gained, and a memory in which something is lost. One of the "gained" sections is called "Box," while the following "lost" section is called "Foot."
My Happy Life was enthralling, a Dorothy Allison story without Bone's sharp intelligence or righteous anger. I couldn't put it down, and when I'd finished, I went back and read it again.
My Happy Life
by Lydia Millet
2007 by Soft Skull Press
Soft cover, 149 pp.