Ghost Light: How to get out of paying your taxes


Lydia Millet’s Ghost Lights is so great. It’s funny, dark, complex. It’s a fast read. It takes on the complicated and fraught questions like what agency do we have as individuals? what are our responsibilities to our children and spouses? how do we make sense of tragedy?

*Minor spoilers to come (as in all this gets revealed in the first 40 pages*

You want more context? Sure.The book folks Hal, the IRS tax-guy, as he figures out what his life means in the present and what parts of that life he can control. Hal’s wife is cheating on him. His daughter, paralyzed after a car accident, makes her living as a phone sex… what’s the noun? operator? When Hal’s wife boss Thomas Stern (who prefers to go by T. – a choice he’s made, but can’t control sensing a theme here) goes missing in Belize, Hal decides to go and find him. After years of feeling and acting tethered to the loss of the life that could have been have been (had Casey not been paralyzed), Hal throws himself into the present. Realizes that there’s not much he can properly control. Realizes “he should not think too much. As a rule he set too much store by thinking. Or at least, complacent in the knowledge that thought was the most useful tool available to men – and one so often neglected by his fellow Americans – he relied on it to the exclusion of other ways of filtering information. Thought was the act of conscious cognition but there were alternative processes of the mind that could work around or alongside it” (77).

It’s a novel that looks at what happens when you radically shift your approach to decision making – and realize that you still can’t control anything and that ‘choice’ is entirely dependent on circumstance. Into this realization comes Hal (no accident then that Hal works for the IRS: the only things you can’t avoid in life being death and taxes) who in his effort to do something (rescue Stern, have an affair) proves the limits of choice and action: he spends good chunks of the plot passed out from drinking and having his life happen to him.

So what can you choose? What can you decide? Probably only that you should read this book. Probably not even that.

Stern has gone AWOL from running his fancy-pants company and making bazillions of dollars.


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Filed under American literature, Bestseller, Prize Winner

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