Mil Millington first surfaced on the web as author of the cult website ThingsMyGirlfriendAndIHaveArguedAbout.com, which comprised several thousand words of cringe-making – not to say hilarious – observations on the relationship between Mil and his German girlfriend, Margret. As Mil writes, ‘anything good you put on the web will get stolen’, and it was the Daily Mail that lifted his ideas for an article, leaving Mil uncredited and justifiably disgruntled. Following successful legal action, Mil found himself riding the crest of the media wave that publishers love so much; he was commissioned to write a novel.
I was very interested in the book of TMGAIHAA because, like Mr Millington, I find myself in an Anglo-German relationship that does, frankly, lend itself to comedy, though the knowledge that I’m participating in a future anecdote often does little to ease the pain of navigating a ski slope on my face or knowing what the hell is happening at Christmas.
Though a work of fiction, TMGAIHAA was a rough collection of anecdotes and amusing scenes. While funny, TMGAIHAA was disappointing. It required considerable effort to read because the characters were two-dimensional and ineffectual. But the impression remained that Millington had the potential to write a great novel: he has a fine ear, Technicolor hair, an obvious love for well-crafted prose, and a dead-eye for the gag. Is A Certain Chemistry, his follow-up, this great novel?
It opens with ghost-writer Tom Cartwright living job-to-job in Edinburgh along with his Scottish girlfriend, Sara. Tom may be described as a typical Millington first-person protagonist: self-centred, lippy, witty, and solipsistic. The lens of Tom’s perception ignites gag after gag. On his agent:
Amy, being an agent, always gave good phone. Even though she’d rung you, she always sounded surprised, yet delighted, to discover you were the person on the other end of the line.
And, here, Tom is literally chasing soap star Georgina Nye for the commission to ghost her autobiography:
She shot off across the road. I was beyond the farthest shores of knackered. I wasn’t running in any accepted sense of the word run any more. You know how children gallop odd-legged – like Igor crossing Frankenstein’s laboratory carrying a torso – when they are pretending they’re riding a horse? That’s how I was moving.
This breathless style may be too much for some. But, in the context of Tom’s character, it is pitch-perfect. As Tom accepts the Nye commission and gets in scrape after scrape, his embarrassment and ineptitude are beautifully rendered. There are few writers who have Millington’s ability to orchestrate a set-piece. Fewer still can make them as funny.
If Millington’s use of language is his strength, his ability to structure a novel is his weakness. Tom Cartwright is a man with virtually no insight. He seems almost doomed to repeat his mistakes. I write ‘almost doomed’ because the epilogue presents a startling reverse: finally, and surprisingly, Tom learns something. What makes this frustrating for the reader is that Tom’s realisation takes place between the letters of a ‘Two Years Later’ announcement immediately prior to the epilogue. This is bad in itself, but it compounds the other structural weakness of the novel: God Almighty.
Yes, God. The One and Only. Like the comic relief in a Shakespearian comedy (and just as unfunny), God occasionally appears to chat with the audience across the back of his hand. And chat he does, in a prose style that made me look at my girlfriend across the breakfast table and groan, “I think Millington just knackered his novel.” God, apparently, is American and knows nothing more about humans than Millington has read in the New Scientist. God wants to tell us (because ‘.I know what you guys is like’; grrrrr) that the attraction between men and women is, at root, chemical. In other words, love is neither supernatural nor intellectual. God, the Omniscient, has been unable to figure this out by Himself and only now, because some scientists have come up with labels for the chemicals involved, does He get it. This revelation is about as stunning as the statement that Tom withdraws his hand from a flame not because he wants to but because he is compelled by an uncontrollable chain of electro-chemical actions. Thanks, God, for clearing that one up. The overall point – that people can fall in love (or lust) unintentionally – would have been made equally well had God been asked to hold fire on His drive-thru chapel sermons.
If Millington were Schumacher, this would read like a spin-out on the final lap of a Grand Prix. An opportunity thrown away. With the parts penned by God excised, and thus the din of parable silenced, the book would be improved: the reader would be spared a lesson in chemistry and, instead, be treated to a demonstration of funny, honed and entertaining fiction.
Millington has the potential to be the next Douglas Adams. As a Douglas Adams admirer, I don’t say this lightly. A Certain Chemistry is still an enjoyable and worthwhile book (I note some Amazon reviewers thought that God’s interludes were a blast; go figure), and Millington has clearly grown as a writer since the publication of his first novel, TMGAIHAA. If he goes up a gear with his next book, and does a cool Schumie on that final corner instead of a choking Barrichello, he will be a writer to watch.