Tag Archives: Mil Millington

A Certain Chemistry, Mil Millington

<em class="BookTitle">A Certain Chemistry</em>, Mil Millington

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.

Things My Girlfriend and I Have Argued About, Mil Millington

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.