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October 11, 2009

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Slick and fast shorts

LYDIA Millet's stories uniformly begin with arresting lines, all of them guns on the wall, waiting to go off. "When a bird landed on her foot the pop star was surprised." "The dog was serious, always had been." "I knew a great man once." High stakes, yes, but also the promise of a bit of fun, a promise that this collection rarely forgets.

This first story collection by Millet after six novels centers on the interactions between celebrities and animals. But of course it's really about plain old humans - life lurks in the civilian underworld, it's clear. We may get David Hasselhoff's dog and his walker, Noam Chomsky and a rodent cage, Thomas Edison and the elephant he filmed being electrocuted, but these setups are often decoys; the narrative mostly belongs to those beneath the headlines.

Millet's strengths are on display in "The Lady and the Dragon." To lure Sharon Stone to be his concubine, an Indonesian billionaire has bought the Komodo dragon that attacked her ex-husband. But his staff fails to procure the real Stone and instead hires a Vegas impersonator who freaks out when the lizard disembowels a fawn. Lizard and impersonator eventually escape on the same boat.

Pretty ridiculous, yet the story isn't played for laughs. It slowly shifts register from amused to engaged. Millet starts with a journalistic recounting of the attack (they're mostly too good to check, but all of these stories rely on some factual under-pinning - Stone's ex, Phil Bronstein, really was bitten by a Komodo dragon), then continues with a more nuanced view of the situation.

In a wonderfully believable detail, the staff member responsible for contacting Stone is too scared to call her management, so he e-mails instead. We end, surprisingly, with the impersonator in a kind of communion with the Komodo dragon.

Chekhov's gun analogy is by now too worn and similarly the observations in some of these stories can feel familiar. "A pigeon might seem serene," Millet writes in "Tesla and Wife," "but that was a trick of the feathers. The feathers were soft, but beneath them it was bloody. That was beauty, said Tesla: the raw veins, the gray-purple meat beneath the down." Yes, we get it - gore and intensity are the stuff of life. But beneath the bravado, the sentiment is commonplace.

You could read this collection as a critique - of our celebrity culture, of the uses we make of unresponding creatures - and Millet is sufficiently thorough to layer these resonances in a satisfying way. But that would be to miss the pleasures of the best of these stories: their quickness, their minor graces.

She probably tries on too many guises and occasionally skims when it comes to character, but these are marks of her satisfying restlessness and reach. A story collection too varied to be packaged as a kind of novel is a refreshing thing.


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