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Pretty Ugly 

Lydia Millet's characters are so profoundly twisted that they'll make you laugh out loud

Is there a burgeoning literary movement in America that we might call "The New Nihilism"? If the answer is yes, then its foremost practitioners most likely include authors such as Denis Johnson (Jesus' Son), Chuck Palahniuk (Fight Club) and George Saunders (Pastoralia), men who specialize in yarns about spiritually malformed characters stumbling in the darkness of their own deranged, diminutive and/or drug-addled minds, with oft-hilarious results.

Naturally, the results tend to offer more hilarity if you're the sort of vaguely elitist soul who enjoys laughing at the folly of those intellectually less fortunate. But really, at a point in history when our nation has stupidly OK-ed the folly of another Vietnam, what's not to be elitist about? Indeed, those of us who read things like, say, books, instead of blindly absorbing Fox News, have much to chuckle despairingly about these days. (Well, at least a few of us, anyway.) And what is nihilism, after all, but a refuge from despair?

Novelist Lydia Millet is the first woman whom I can confidently label a New Nihilist, and her imagination is a vast empire of jocular sadness. Indeed, her characters are so tantalizingly fucked up that I'm wondering how long it will be before an outré filmmaker like Harmony Korine (Julien Donkey-Boy) or Todd Solondz (Happiness) hires her to write a really, really nasty script. If they don't, they can always adapt one of her four novels, with Everyone's Pretty being at the top of my list of books sorely in need of cinematic treatment.

First, there's Dean Decetes, an alcoholic pornographer/philosopher with a Jim Jones complex who hatches an absurd plan to make a blue movie with his cinematographer, a mentally challenged midget. The plan somehow involves stealing credit cards, robbing an electronics store, frequenting Asian massage parlors and drinking relentlessly. All the while, Dean's mind sputters like a flatulent lawnmower in need of an oil change--it's comical, yet you can't help but flinch at every puff of smoke. Take for instance the moment in which he bones up on his chosen profession as a messianic smutter in his sister's living room: Yes, he was a man with an ambitious plan. To work, to work. He reclined in the viewing throne, wielded the remote in a kingly fist and watched two double penetrations in a row. He must be brought before the masses of the unwashed. He had denied the inklings of his destiny for long enough, for even through adversity he always had been certain: Dean Decetes was not just a man. Then there's Dean's spinster sister, Bucella, who lusts after her boss, Ernest, and dreams of washing his feet, and who bears the cross her degenerate sibling: One day Jesus and the Virgin would glide across the sun in a golden Chariot and flocks of saints would fly behind them in a Shimmering Parade. And all the children and the nice people would go with them. And far above in Paradise, Bucella and Ernest would be united in Matrimony to organ strains.

Dean could go right on down to hell to be with his Fornicating Friends. He enjoyed himself most in the company of Ladies of the Evening and Slimy Pimps. Oh yes, he would be perfectly happy there, lying in Burning Coals and Damned Eternal Flames wiggling his Member. Other characters include Ginny, a teenage math genius and nymphomaniac who accidentally garrotes Dean's magazine editor during intercourse; Phillip, a Christian Scientist statistician who obsesses over his crazed wife Barbara's purity; and Alice, a desperate, lonely alcoholic who suddenly becomes the unwitting target of Phillip's misplaced zeal and sexual frustration.

It's Millet's talent as a stylist that takes my breath away, particularly when it comes to dialogue. Some of these exchanges are uproarious, as when Dean wanders into a party and feigns medical knowledge in order to score free booze. Or when Dean haggles with a madam over the fact that his short sidekick was denied service because his grotesque looks caused the masseuse to puke. Or just about any page in Everyone's Pretty, for that matter.

Millet, who won the PEN USA award for her third novel, My Happy Life, and who lives in Tucson, isn't going to outsell Dan Brown any time soon with such a grimly disturbing outlook on life. Yet Everyone's Pretty is so transgressive, so wildly and beautifully dark, that it's like a breath of fresh air in a stale literary environment overrun with too-clever postmodernists. Sure, Millet may end up a cult author like her peers, but, hey, that's a pretty damn good spot to be in.

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