AP

Review: Birds and burdens in Lydia Millet’s ‘Dinosaurs’

Oct 12, 2022, 6:19 AM | Updated: 6:31 am

“Dinosaurs,” by Lydia Millet (W.W. Norton)

Besides moving on from a bad breakup, Gil, the protagonist of Lydia Millet’s “Dinosaurs,” walks from New York to Phoenix because he “wanted to pay for something.” He explains this to his new next-door-neighbor, Ardis, and her best friend, Sarah, over drinks later into this resettlement, saying, “When you have a lot of money, you never pay for anything. You never feel the cost, so you live like everything is free. There’s never a trade-off. Never a choice or a sacrifice, unless you give up your time. I wanted the change to cost me. You know? I wanted to earn it.”

This search for redemption is rooted in the inheritance he received from his oil baron grandparents, and his attempt to earn it manifests in a philosophy of charity. It’s the least he can do for the legacy that earned his family billions on others’ backs and for all the suffering that exists around him. Narrating between his past in New York and his present in Arizona, readers follow Gil’s previous charity at a refugee center, where fellow volunteers became some of his only friends and the language barrier satisfied his avoidance of interaction, to his current position as a bodyguard for traumatized women at a women’s shelter.

He also gives his time to the next door family, which becomes an extension of his. Ardis, a psychotherapist, is married to Ted, a developer of sorts, and they have two children — angsty adolescent Clem, and sweetly boisterous Tom. He becomes a babysitter-friend to Tom, exerting a parental protectiveness throughout a stifled world — picking him up from a martial arts class early upon seeing an instructor’s swastika tattoo, helping him navigate the neighborhood’s anti-skateboarding rules, and standing up to his bully, and his bully’s bully. In his friendship with Tom’s parents, he is slowly entangled in their own marital challenges besides their lives, as he partners with Sarah despite his earlier attempts to maintain a friendship.

Gil reflects on his volunteer friends from before, one who swore like a sailor and was in the military, the other a devout Catholic. He thinks about Lane, who ghosted him after a decade-long relationship. He contemplates his painful childhood, treating the man who contributed to some of that damage with a steady charity.

Importantly, birds take readers through these relationships, the animal’s prehistoric antecedent the novel’s namesake. One of the few things Gil noticed on his walk to Phoenix, birds structure the novel literally, a different species titling each chapter and appearing throughout the plot’s development. The hummingbirds set up Gil and Ardis’ friendship when she brings him a feeder and continues to replace the nectar, the raven that reflects a new friend’s identity and love-life aspirations, the hawk that sharpens his quest for whoever is illegally hunting quails at night. The way these birds journey together and build upon one another’s human counterparts is where the novel’s authenticity and beauty lie.

Gil’s insightful rumination bring the writing its life and the characters their development. “A kid was like an ornamental vase placed awkwardly at the edge of a doorway. You stubbed your toe on the darn thing every time you passed,” explains Gil’s childless life. Yet he is later touched by Tom, “a small boy’s condolences.” The solitude of the hawks and vultures he notices on his route, “only broken by courtship and breeding,” like his own solitude that he admits to feeling along with fear as “waves that often stopped his from remembering the one thing. The one thing and the greatest thing.”

While Millet shines light on the timely theme of taking responsibility for the world we’ve inherited is vital, these larger questions the novel hints at — the infinite, love’s intangibility, the stains of evil — leave readers hanging as she wrangles them into simplistic, flat turns of events. The anticlimactic slice-of-life frame of Gil’s character never quite substantiates the sweeping, all-encompassing conjecture at which he gradually arrives. Sparse writing creates mystery but also hinders the possible intricacies of the outcome. For all the novel’s transcendence through the past’s burdens and the goodness of small acts, its convictions don’t go far enough.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

AP

Arizona and New York attorneys feud over extraditing suspect...

Associated Press

Why Alvin Bragg and Rachel Mitchell are fighting over extraditing suspect in New York hotel killing

Maricopa County Attorney Rachel Mitchell says she isn't into extraditing a suspect due to her lack of faith in Manhattan’s top prosecutor.

3 days ago

A Gila monster is displayed at the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, Dec. 14, 2018. A 34-year-old Color...

Associated Press

Colorado man dies after being bitten by pet Gila monster

A Colorado man has died after being bitten by his pet Gila monster in what would be a rare death by one of the desert lizards if the creature's venom turns out to have been the cause.

4 days ago

Police clear the area following a shooting at the Kansas City Chiefs NFL football Super Bowl celebr...

Associated Press

1 dead, many wounded after shooting at Kansas City Chiefs’ Super Bowl victory parade

One person died after 22 people were hit by gunfire in a shooting at the end of the Kansas Chiefs' Super Bowl victory celebration Wednesday.

11 days ago

This image from House Television shows House Speaker Mike Johnson of La., banging the gavel after h...

Associated Press

GOP-led House impeaches Homeland Security Secretary Mayorkas — by one vote — over border management

Having failed to impeach Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas the first time, House Republicans are determined to try again Tuesday.

12 days ago

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, right, and Kenya's Defense Minister Aden Duale, left, listen during...

Associated Press

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin hospitalized with bladder issue

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has been hospitalized following symptoms pointing to an “emergent bladder issue."

14 days ago

Joel Osteen, the pastor of Lakewood Church, stands with his wife, Victoria Osteen, as he conducts a...

Associated Press

Woman firing rifle killed by 2 off-duty officers at Houston’s Lakewood Church run by Joel Osteen

A woman entered the Texas megachurch of Joel Osteen and started shooting with a rifle Sunday and was killed by two off-duty officers.

14 days ago

Sponsored Articles

...

Day & Night Air Conditioning, Heating and Plumbing

Day & Night is looking for the oldest AC in the Valley

Does your air conditioner make weird noises or a burning smell when it starts? If so, you may be due for an AC unit replacement.

...

Fiesta Bowl Foundation

The 51st annual Vrbo Fiesta Bowl Parade is excitingly upon us

The 51st annual Vrbo Fiesta Bowl Parade presented by Lerner & Rowe is upon us! The attraction honors Arizona and the history of the game.

...

Canvas Annuity

Interest rates may have peaked. Should you buy a CD, high-yield savings account, or a fixed annuity?

Interest rates are the highest they’ve been in decades, and it looks like the Fed has paused hikes. This may be the best time to lock in rates for long-term, low-risk financial products like fixed annuities.

Review: Birds and burdens in Lydia Millet’s ‘Dinosaurs’