Review: Lulu Miller’s “Why Fish Don’t Exist” is a must-read

Photo by Naomi Priddy | The Arbiter

In biologist Lulu Miller’s 2020 part-history, part-memoir “Why Fish Don’t Exist,” we are introduced to the author and narrator in an exploration of her past and her confrontation with nihilism: the rejection of all religious and spiritual systems that say existence is meaningless. 

At a young age Miller was taunted by a famous quote from Charles Darwin that hung in her fathers office: “There is grandeur in this view of life … if you can’t see, shame on you.” 

Her father, Chris Miller, was a man of science who taught his children from a young age that their existence was meaningless. Despite this belief, he often used Darwin’s quote as a lesson, reminding Miller that without meaning you can see the bigger picture of existence and your small place in it. He saw the beauty in life and hoped the same for his children, but Miller struggled. 

Miller was henceforth burdened with the mental duty of “seeing the grandeur” while simultaneously growing up with the belief that life and people are meaningless.  

The struggle to understand her place in the world and see the beauty of existence remains a never-ending presence in her life and throughout the book. As our narrator enters adulthood she finds herself in a deep depression that leads her to an attempted suicide. 

At that moment, Miller knew something in her life needed to change. She saw her father and the way he carelessly enjoyed life despite his views on existence, and she decided she wanted to find something that would keep her grounded in her life. 

[Photo of “Why Fish Don’t Exist” by Lulu Miller.]
Photo by Naomi Priddy | The Arbiter

In this journey towards mental peace, she turns towards the most unlikely of places to find it. 

Miller develops an obsessive interest in 19th century taxonomist David Starr Jordan — a man who dedicated his life to collecting, ordering and labeling over 10,850 fish species. Jordan clung to the same Darwin quote that taunted Miller and like her father, rejected all belief systems. However, he claims the discovery of finding order. 

Miller dedicates the next year of her life to exploring everything there is to discover about Jordan, and his research becomes a prevalent theme throughout the novel and a vital aspect of her search to prove the existence of order.

We are met with an author who delves deeply into what it means to exist while simultaneously warning those who ask the same questions: 

“The problem with spending one’s time pondering the futility of it all is that you divert that precious electricity gifted to you by evolution—those sacred ions that could make you feel so many wonderful sensations and think so many wonderful ideas—and you flush it all down the drain of existential inquiry, causing you to literally die while the body is still alive.” 

It was passages like that that inspired me to continue reading. I consider myself to be a bit of an existentialist, so when Miller decided to outwardly criticize critical philosophy, I was intrigued. I was faced with the question of: Does it serve me to try and understand everything? And in turn as I read on I was met with lessons of undoing existentialism and finding contentment with the way things are.

The novel serves as a profound review of Miller’s own experiences through depression, philosophy, suicide and nihilism, and her attempt to remedy her struggles through her research of Jordan. The novel gives readers an intimate glimpse into the mental health of the writer and, in turn, offers an opportunity to consider their own experience with the meaning of existence. 

The memoir beams with an earnest symmetry of sensuality and science, making for a unique read amongst other scientific novels and regular memoirs. 

Miller’s explorative uses of poetic language seasoned with scientific verbiage made for passages worth re-reading. It stands as an excellent page turner for any reader looking for a light read with big themes. 

Through the lens of ordering fish, the reader can unveil the truth of order in life and learn, like Miller, how to find stability in an unstable world.

“We barely know the world around us, even the simplest things under our feet..we have been wrong before and we will be wrong again … the true path to progress is paved not with certainty but doubt, with being open to revision.”

The deep colors of blue and gold on the book jacket give the reader an elegant glimpse into the heart of the book, one of depth and loss, yet glittered with the newfound understanding of hope and optimism. 

I found myself worried as I opened the blue cover expecting to form a relationship with Miller but was instead taken on a journey of chaos and obsession from the author. I thought I understood the purpose the taxonomist served in the book; but as chapters moved forward I was lost on the truth about this character and his relationship with the author and the readers.

Promise yourself to stick through it. If you do, you will be met with a provocative and enlightening turn-around where “nowhere is the sky so blue, the grass so green, the sunshine so bright, the shade so welcome, as right here, now, today.” 

By the end, the reader will be convinced that Fish don’t exist. 

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