Gil, the protagonist of Lydia Millet’s Dinosaurs, is a man who knows grief. Following the end of a relationship that had long been in the process of breaking down, he purchases a house sight-unseen in Arizona and walks to it from New York. He dubs his new home “the castle.” It has high ceilings and large rooms. He lives there alone, having been orphaned at the age of two and passed between guardians until inheriting his family’s fortune at eighteen. His walk takes five solitary months. It is time he can take off, since “he had nowhere to be and no one who needed him.”
The house next door is made of glass and soon a family moves in. Gil is disconcerted by their lack of privacy, as he can clearly observe the mother, father, teenage daughter, and preteen son going about their lives. Soon, the mother, Ardis, brings over an ice-breaking pie, and all parties acknowledge the awkwardness of the glass house. And so, an unusual relationship between the households forms.
Through spare prose and careful observation of people, Millet portrays community as if it were a gem held to light: each turn catches a new angle and casts a previously unseen color. They share meals. A friendship forms between Gil and the son, Tom. Bullied as a child, Gil is the first to see the signs that Tom is going through his own school torment. The stories of Gil’s friendships spill out beyond these two homes, too. They look back to Gil’s bond with the foulmouthed Navy SEAL, Van Alsten. In Arizona, Gil befriends a repressed fellow women’s shelter volunteer, Jason, and a kind surgeon, Sarah.
Perhaps Gil and his friends are the dinosaurs, forging a community destined to die out in a fragmenting landscape. Or perhaps they are the birds who adapt and survive and thrive.
Community, however, brings deep pain. Dinosaurs is not a misanthropic novel, but Millet remains clear-eyed about the failures of human beings to live well together. To be open to relationships may mean being used, as Gil is for his wealth, or abused, like the women at the shelter. To have a friend can lead to loss. To have neighbors can lead to having a Neighborhood Association. The 2016 American presidential election haunts the novel’s backdrop, signaling a fracturing in American community from which it may not recover. Finally, humans fail to live in community with nature, as the quail, hawks, and hummingbirds Gil observes become victims of a neighborhood poacher.
Is there, then, any hope to be found in community? The title, Dinosaurs, looks back on those creatures that went extinct because they could not adapt to a world radically changed by catastrophe. Perhaps Gil and his friends are the dinosaurs, forging a community destined to die out in a fragmenting political and environmental landscape. Or perhaps they are the birds who adapt and survive and thrive. Either way, the book’s concerns remain largely with the here and now, where grief forges a kind soul and every creature to the smallest bird is loved.