Flame, 2003, 372 pages, C$24.95 tp, ISBN 0-340-82114-0
You wouldn’t normally expect infidelity to be a good engine for a comic novel, but it’s true the Mil Millington doesn’t write about conventional subjects. His first novel, Things My Girlfriend and I Have Argued About, was directly inspired by the autobiographical website that first brought him so much attention: It was based on, well, a couple that argued a lot. From there to infidelity is a logical progression on the list of unpleasant things that couples do, which brings us to his second novel: A Certain Chemistry.
Stepping a bit farther away from autobiographical experiences, Millington’s second novel features a professional writer whose five-year-old relationship is seriously tested when he’s asked to ghost-write the autobiography of Britain’s most popular soap star. He’s funny and ordinary, while she’s famous and gorgeous: this is all headed toward disaster. It’s not too much of a spoiler to say that infidelity does occur, and that a good chunk of the novel is spent looking at the narrator as he tries to cover up his infidelities in bumbling and inept fashion.
Meanwhile, in interstitial chapters, God is our narrator and he can’t shut up about the evolutionary processes that doom our relationships. Apologies for the way we’re designed don’t make him any less sorry for the tribulations that the narrator is going through.
Despite the premise (and, almost despite where the novel inevitably goes), A Certain Chemistry is a very, very funny book. Most of the humor is on a page-per-page level, as the narrator always have a good turn of phrase to describe the humiliating situations in which he is forced, and the slapstick nature of the various adventures following his affair with a celebrity. As one could expect, other people find out, the whole mess gets bigger, and we’re left wondering how this is going to be settled.
One thing is certain: This is a two-page-a-minute read: The narration is engaging even when the character is doing reprehensible things, and the voice of a late-twenties man trying to muddle through life is convincing. Our protagonist is frequently being an idiot, and it’s not his privileged position as a narrator that absolves him from our disapproval. There are a number of situations where the conclusion of the narrator’s efforts is foregone from the start… and yet it keeps its appeal.
On the other hand, there’s no denying that the novel is constantly headed towards a depressing crisis. The balance between this overarching impression of doom and the jocular nature of the narration is one of the trickiest aspects of the novel, and it’s entirely possible to be depressed while reading some amusing passages: what they mask isn’t all that different from tragedy in the classical sense, a hero’s flaws being the seed of his downfall-by-pratfalls.
Compared to Things My Girlfriend and I Have Argued About, A Certain Chemistry has a plot that’s more than episodic, and a definite conclusion that puts things to rest rather than let everything hang in mid-air. The life of a professional writer (ie; someone who writes, preferably on command, those articles in popular magazines) is described with a number of amusing peeks inside the industry, and there’s a sense throughout that Millington is breaking free from the web personae that so obviously fueled his first novel.
So it’s not that improbable that a typically-British humor novel would be hilarious even as it’s treating one of the least amusing subjects on record. It’s Millington’s charm, after all.