Flame, 2002, 338 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-340-83054-9
You really can’t argue against name recognition. Years ago, Mil Millington started a web site on which he started posting short humorous snippets of his daily arguments with his German-born girlfriend. The web site was a big hit, up to and including being ripped off in one of Britain’s biggest newspaper. Apologies, compensation and writing gigs from competing newspapers soon followed, along with a book deal. When looking around for a title and subject matter, Millington played it safe and resorted to the good old “write what you know” axiom: His first novel shares both a title and a basic premise with the web site that launched his career.
Narrated by ordinary Brit bloke Pel Dalton, Things My Girlfriend and I Have Argued About is not too dissimilar to the post-Bridget Jones wave of chick-lit, or the Nick Hornby “male confessional” sub-genre: Tales of young adults lost in today’s society, trying to do the best they can with what life handed over. Pel is the classic underachiever, working in IT for a university library and trying to do as little as possible in order to make it from one day to another. His self-deprecating narration is immediately sympathetic, but he’s hardly the star of the novel.
Oh no, that honour would have to go to Ursula, his German girlfriend. Much like what we know of Millington’s home life through his web site (though Millington assures us that it’s not an autobiography), the two of them are constantly arguing about the most ordinary things. Pel, of course, never wins. But don’t get the impression that the two of them are unhappy: As Pel’s work life becomes increasingly chaotic, the comforting crazy routine of his home life is just about the only thing keeping him grounded. In an interesting twist on the usual fictional relationships, they argue because they feel so comfortable together, not because it’s driving them apart.
But the plot of the novel itself is nothing more than a clothesline on which to hang a series of humour vignettes. A trip to Germany is nothing but an excuse to riff on Anglo-German relations, in-laws, ski accidents and travel woes. Pel’s troubles at the office keep escalating to an absurd crescendo of wild circumstances that wouldn’t be misplaced in a thriller. Naturally, everything just keeps getting funnier as his life goes from bad to worse. If you’re looking for a laugh-aloud novel, this is it. Pel’s narration is packed with good lines, and there’s something for everyone as he goes from a rotten office job to a home life that’s no less stressful. A good assortment of supporting characters does a lot to complicate Pel’s situation… and crank up the laughs. The fact that Pel himself isn’t the most competent character around is funny, but the increasingly dysfunctional characters that surround him are even funnier. It’s a fast read, a good read and Anglophiles will find a lot to love in the dry British narration.
The only problem with the novel is both minor and significant. As the novel unfolds, Pel gets embroiled in stranger and stranger problems at work, cumulating functions, learning dangerous secrets, rubbing shoulders with unsavoury characters and earning the enmity of his colleagues. Naive readers may expect all of this to reach a conclusion of sorts, as absurd or contrived it may be. But no: Things My Girlfriend and I Have Argued About simply stops even as everything goes up in a storm. It’s an absolutely deliberate gag: the point of the novel is to show how, even as they argue during the worst crises, Pel and Ursula are inseparable. But the effect is still one of disappointment, a vague sense of having been cheated of a resolution even as Millington took pleasure in making life hell for his protagonist with no intention whatsoever of resolving the various problems. Your tolerance for ambiguous endings will determine whether this is a book-throwing problem.
But once you ignore the ending, Mil Millington’s debut novel is perfectly adequate: fans of the web site will recognize the style and the premise, fans of modern humorous romance will be satisfied and more generalist readers will enjoy the vignettes. Purists will also note that Millington’s hardly a one-trick writer: two other novels followed this one, with no end in sight.