Mermaids in Paradise
by Lydia Millet
2014 • 304 pages • W.W. Norton & Company
Let me begin this review by popping up on my soapbox, whipping out my megaphone, and bellowing at the top of my lungs, “PUNCH UP, NOT DOWN.”
If there’s one thing I cannot stand in comedy, it’s cruelty. As much as I am enjoying my journey through early Saturday Night Live, sometimes I want to scream into a pillow. Like, for instance, when there’s a sketch that centers solely around screwing a blind black man out of a law scholarship to make a muddied point about how affirmative action is crap. I can see no comedic value in privileged groups mocking marginalized groups. (I do want to stress there’s a difference between this and internal, loving parody, a la Portlandia.)
But that’s the kind of comedy that runs rampant through Mermaids in Paradise, which is, I gather, meant to be a light comedic trifle about a honeymooning couple who discover mermaids at their Caribbean resort. It’s told from the perspective of Deb, who applies a patronizing and slightly cruel gloss to everything she sees.
For instance: during the lead-up to the wedding, Deb despairs of everything related to weddings, calling them infantile and pedophilic. (Of course, her analysis stops at side-eying women who like that kind of thing, instead of interrogating the system.) Her beloved Chip loves World of Warcraft, which she constantly points out as a huge problem and a major sacrifice that she’s made in the relationship. (It’s also really apparent Millet did no research for the handful of times Deb is describing what Chip is doing in the game, which begs the question—why not just invent a game if you’re just going to crap on it? It just ends up implying that Millet assumes her readers will similarly have never played such a game but have immediately dismissed it.) When an indigenous employee shows Deb and Chip to their rooms, Deb immediately starts rhapsodizing about the woman is “embodying a primordial womanly grace, with her darkish, gleaming complexion and earthen-toned sarong” (62). And there’s a “comedic” set piece centered around Janeane, a fellow vacationer, who clearly suffers from panic attacks, a non-specific anxiety disorder, and may have survived some sexual trauma. At a resort-wide dinner, she begins suffering a panic attack and her partner tries to soothe her, but the way he touches her arm re-triggers her. Hilarious!
As the novel progresses, Deb does begin to learn to start seeing other people as people—she even becomes explicitly fond of Janeane. But that almost makes it worse when, after the mermaids’ existence is made public, hordes of thuggishly characterized evangelical Christians descend on the resort hellbent on finding and killing every last mermaid. (This is predicted, slightly, in the novel’s opening, where Deb discusses Chip’s fetishizing fascination with Middle America.) They’re depicted as more animals than people. The twist ending almost explains why anyone would be motivated to do that, but that comes too late to relieve the idea that Deb has a really, really hard time seeing other people as people. Which is a perfectly fine trait for a character to have, when it’s acknowledged as a trait that they have and not presented as a functional way to look at the world around you.
In fact, Mermaids in Paradise reminds me a lot of Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette—which I didn’t care for, if that comes off sounding like a recommendation. (Although if you like one, you’ll probably like the other.) Mermaids in Paradise echoes Semple’s novel down to the vicious social hierarchies being treated as affable fact. There is obviously an audience for this kind of comic novel, and that is great. (The creative life is financially rough; I will never fault anyone for trying to put food on the table.) The film rights to this novel have already been optioned. Tragedy is objective; comedy is subjective. But I am very troubled when I see comic novels, which have space ill-afforded most mainstream kinds of comedy, punch down for no real reason.
As for the eponymous mermaids… the speculative fiction elements aren’t particularly folded in well. They’re largely used as the MacGuffin to move the plot and, therefore, Deb’s ponderings along. I had been hoping for a little more, but I think that’s inherent to the novel’s heritage—Millet is a literary writer (I know that’s the right usage, but the semantic abuse of that phrase will grate me to the grave) experimenting with just a little speculative fiction without committing to the whole shebang. If you’d like a novel that uses mermaids to rigorously explore internal and external landscapes, I heartily recommend Kit Whitfield’s In Great Waters. Mermaids in Paradise? Not so much.
I rented this book from the public library.