Lydia Millet’s “A Children’s Bible” starts off innocuously enough—a group of families are sharing a large house for the summer. The children, mostly teenagers and some prepubescents, devise a game to not to allow themselves to be matched with their parents, finding them embarrassing, as kids do. The parents halfheartedly play along, more interested in drinking with their old college mates than supervising. Their mere parental neglect might be viewed generously as providing an atmosphere of freedom and exploration, but the story quickly veers into utter lawlessness when a violent storm floods both the house and the grounds.
The reader starts to feel genuine alarm for these near-orphans when the roof is partially torn away from their attic dormitory and children are sent up to repair it in a lightning storm. The stakes continue to grow in Millet’s novel as the region falls into an apocalyptic scenario of illness and food shortages. Frivolous families enjoying a mansion “built by robber barons” shudder and collapse under withering examination. Millet’s characters can easily be interpreted as representative of a society that is not acting with concern for their children’s well-being. Reading “A Children’s Bible” during an actual, semi-apocalyptic experience is enough to fill one with a sense of eerie verisimilitude, or, at the very least, a sense of awe at Millet’s prescience.
“Sometimes I’d sit in a parked car, motionless. I’d remember factories. I’d seen them onscreen in a hundred variations and always had the sense of them out there, churning, whirring, infinite moving pieces. Making the stuff we used. Now I wondered if they were still busy, manufacturing. Or were shuttered and dark. Were other factories in other places doing the work they used to do?” The apathy of the older generation disgusts the young people. Where before they wished to disassociate, they now wish to wholly separate in the aftermath. The parents’ insistence on something as trivial as not breaking their lease agreement when far greater dangers await reads like an easy metaphor for our blithe avoidance to create real change that prevents imminent environmental ruin. Why shouldn’t it? In Millet’s hands, young people, like a collective Greta Thunberg, are responsible for cobbling a future together where their parents have failed.
A Children’s Bible
By Lydia Millet
W.W. Norton, 240 pages