Similar problems inherent to the Coen brothers' effort mucked up the works in Millet's novel, although it's clear "Burn After Reading" might have benefited from a clearer understanding of who its main character was supposed to be. Conversely, there is no doubt in "Everyone's Pretty" that Dean Decetes, human refuse and megalomaniac, is the man around whom all of the story's other actors and action turn.
My main point of criticism with respect to "Everyone's Pretty" is its sometimes palpable falseness. In other words, there were many sections I found to be fun and interesting but conveyed an unmistakable feeling that the author was forcing the issue. Naturally with the absurdist-style narrative Millet employs it isn't essential to produce "believable" characteristics and circumstances, but that's not exactly the problem I'm referring to, either.
Millet seems at times to mishandle her character's separate motivations, or what at bottom is each's ethos. For example, Ginny, a middle-school-aged math prodigy. She is at times the picture of self-assurance and possessing insight and prescience beyond her years, while at other times behaves more than naive and illogical -- paradoxically so, in fact -- I mean, beyond the obvious paradox I've already described.
To a certain extent, I can get behind Millet's use of Ginny. She seems to have wanted a character who, for better or worse, would have the sardonic humor of a child advanced for her years, something akin to a "Juno" or Professor Gladney's unusual clan of children in "White Noise." Simply put, she apparently wanted a youthful character who could show up the adults she encountered, many of whom behave with about as much decorum as the reactionary adults of "South Park."
But then comes the wanting the cake, too. [Spoiler Alert] This young prodigy, this child barely old enough to drive, is basically so naive or illogical or both that she somehow convinces herself that dressing a dead man up like a mummy might then bring him back to life? She believes that? The narrator says, ostensibly to the tune of Ginny's inner-monologue, "If Mr. Alan was a mummy he could live forever." This thought described after it's said the movie that gave her the idea "wasn't scary just dumb. The special effects looked homemade." I mean, come on.
But before I continue let me offer more context. This is what happens: to escape her overbearing mother, Riva, who ambushes Ginny in front of her fellow students and teacher in class (Riva falls dangerously on the side of overplayed caricature, likewise), she drives off with her mother's car and falls into the company of Decete's erstwhile boss, Alan H, a smut magazine editor. Alan, who is either suicidal or over-enthusiastically desirous of auto-erotic asphyxiation, manages to strangle himself to death with only modest assistance from Ginny (who is unnerved by the proceedings from the outset), thus leading to her plight of what to do with his inert body, which she seems unwilling to believe is really dead (not quite so farfetched). You might opine that things like innocence and panic played their part in her unusual reaction, but I'm hard pressed to buy it. In the end, it feels forced. And it's this falseness that severely hampered my fondness for what was, over all, an amusing story chock full of worthwhile ruminative ideas and points of consideration.
Decetes, best likened to a cross between W.C. Fields and Larry Flynt, is the life breath of Millet's tale. Without his fortifying power the story falls apart, and nearly all of the characters would lose at least some of their substance without him. This then is very much to Millet's credit. And while I feel the world has seen a Decetes type in various other incarnations in other stories, his relationship with and manipulation of most every major character does much to pace the story (Decetes is also capricious and fairly manic, which adds a jolt of vigor to his excursions). The other major characters, richly variegated but mostly falling at one of two extremes, as either libertine or fundamentalist, include his hyper-religious sister, Bucella (who's particularly mistreated by Decetes); his bemused sleazy dwarf sidekick, Ken; the Christian Scientist, Philip, with whom he only ever comes in contact tangentially; Alice, an attractive blond and the most rational of the bunch; Ernest, the object of Bucella's affection, fantasy and a very gay man; and Barbara, Philip's misunderstood wife with whom Decetes' eventually copulates. He's also a neighbor to Ginny and Riva, and causes them some small duress, as well.
So, in conclusion, what is it? What's "Everyone's Pretty"? A pretty good telling, no pun intended. Lorrie Moore, however, remains my favorite female author. (Take that, Lydia Millet! (although you're definitely not bad by any stretch!))
A Few Other Things: I happened upon a few other things that might be of interest to you, dear reader. I happened upon them because of a kindly commenter at HTML Giant, who posted a link to an article that then links to George Saunders' first published story. The article linked to is at the Faster Times, readable by clicking here-ish. To skip all the Faster Times stuff and so forth, and go directly to the source, George Saunders' original story, well, then click the X. The Faster Time article also mentions David Foster Wallace's first published story was recently unearthed, printed in his undergraduate school's literary journal, The Amherst Review. You can see that story, too, in PDF format! Here it is!
I haven't gotten to either story yet, but I'll probably begin with Wallace's, because I've already printed it and that makes the difference. Maybe, if I'm up for it, I'll click some keys over here about one or the other, or both. And maybe you'll click some keys, too. And in doing so, with a little luck mixed in for good measure, we might further enrich the world. This is my hope.