Lydia Millet is the author of novels including Mermaids in Paradise, Love in Infant Monkeys, and Magnificence. She has been a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Pulitzer Prize in fiction. She spoke to me by email and by phone.
Lydia Millet: You remember the Lorax. Not the Lorax of movies—he’s only a distant cousin—but the original Lorax of paper and ink. He was a Dr. Seuss creature, a fanciful animal-person who was “shortish and oldish and brownish and mossy,” and talked in a voice that was “sharpish and bossy”—in short, an environmentalist. As a writer who’s been working with activists for 20 years now, I’ve met a lot of Loraxes.
We were a Seuss family. As a child I read almost all of his books, but the one I loved best was The Lorax. It’s a fairy tale of failure—the shade of defeat and the shine of hope. All of us who came up with the Lorax (I was born three years before he was) were raised on a tragic fail. The story goes like this: In a dismal blue-and-brown landscape, a small boy seeks out a tale-teller who lives alone in a shabby tower—a tale-teller whose face we never see. In exchange for some whimsical tokens dropped into a pail, the hermit tells his story. This is the aging Once-ler, who came to a beautiful place when he was young and turned it into a wasteland. He chopped down its lovely grove of Truffula trees to make thneeds, “which everyone, everyone, everyone needs.” He drove out the bears and the birds and the fish, ignoring the Lorax’s angry warnings. And when the last tree fell to the axe, and the factory shuttered, the Lorax left too, lifted away through a hole in the smog. Only the Once-ler remained in the promised land he’d destroyed. And a dilapidated sign that read: “The Street of the Lifted Lorax.”
One of my favorite verses comes near the end of the book:
And all that the Lorax left here in this mess was a small pile of rocks, with the one word … ‘UNLESS.’ Whatever that meant, well, I just couldn’t guess. That was long, long ago. But each day since that day I’ve sat here and worried and worried away. Through the years, while my buildings have fallen apart, I’ve worried about it with all of my heart.
I admire this passage for its succinctness of nostalgia and remorse, its simple and straightforward assertion of the phantoms of possibility and powerlessness alongside each other. I’ve wanted, in much of my own fiction, to echo this child’s parable, call forth a ghostly Lorax and adult unless: a gesture of momentum, in the context of story and interior monologue, that entertains the necessity of a continued presence in the world of forests and pupfish and elephants, not only for their own sake but for ours.
Isn’t that a subject worthy of novels? Shouldn’t the cascades of extinction and rapid planetary warming register in our literature? And yet, despite the fact that most Americans support the work of saving species from winking out, and increasingly support strong action to curb climate change, the highly rational push for the preservation of nature and life-support systems often appears in the media—and certainly appears in most current fiction—as a boutique agenda. Climate change is shifting that marginalization, but not fast enough.