British author Mil Millington found success with his first book, ‘Things My Girlfriend And I Have Argued About’, which drew upon his so-named cult website. This book set the trend for his next two, ‘A Certain Chemistry‘ and ‘Love and Other Near-Death Experiences’: neurotic, monologue-prone characters stew in a pot of embarrassment, are sprinkled with sex, and served with the relish of a writer who can deliver the gag, and knows he can. ‘Love and Other Near-Death Experiences’ (LONDE) is the latest in this canon.
Mr Millington’s work is often characterised as ‘lad lit’, but if this label implies unfettered pub-talk, it is inadequate. With ‘A Certain Chemistry’ (ACC), and now LONDE, he continues to prod the glass ceiling of the genre. For example, his work is thematically loaded: ACC like a pea-shooter, LONDE like a twelve-bore shotgun. While humorous fiction is often insincere, these works are marked by an earnestness that sits uncomfortably – given the stark treatment of his theme – alongside the humour. But more of that later.
Rob Garland, the hero of LONDE, wants to marry Jo. Probably. He loves her. More or less. Jo is pretty and kind in a Goldilocks-type way. Not too hot, not too cold; just right. And yet, as the wedding-day logistics multiply with the disturbing fecundity of a decapitated Hydra, Rob’s feet begin to get chilly.
Rob proposed to Jo only days after a lorry ploughed through a pub in which Rob should have been sitting. But for Jo’s insistence that Rob return some cheap and nasty towels, Rob would have been road-kill, along with everyone else in the pub. The experience leaves Rob with a curious disorder: He cannot, for the life of him, make choices on trivial matters. Tea or coffee? Well, coffee has more caffeine, and thus the risk of a pressure-induced Cerebral Vascular Event goes up the next time he sits on the toilet. How about a tea, then? Hotter when served, of course. Nasty scald > Heart attack > Writhing death.
Though this is not made explicit, Rob probably suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, which is characterised by acutely anxious responses to phenomena relating, directly or indirectly, to a traumatic event. But what saved his life? Returning those crappy towels? Buying them? What about meeting his girlfriend for the first time? Choosing a different university? Being born five minutes later? Drinking tea or coffee? Rob is confronted by his mortality each time he makes a trivial decision, one which may or may not end up saving his life, and he experiences crippling moments of indecision that stretch for hours.
With hilarious results!
Well, Mr Millington is not the first writer to pull the tooth of comedy from the jaw of real-world pain. Some would argue that is the essence of humour. Whatever the ethical issues, Millington succeeds in crafting genuinely funny set-pieces from the seldom-ploughed furrows of suicidal depression, trauma-induced religious fanaticism, and Tourette-calibre swearathons. This is gallows humour. Guillotine-sharp wit. Scream-with-laughter-as-you-drift-into-oncoming-traffic funny.
The plot must not be described further because there is not a great deal to go around. Though the book is not short, the characters are wont to spout monologues and argue among themselves while doing nothing effective. In addition, Mr Millington is not shy to use expletives normally reserved for late-night Channel Four shows, and the removal of these colourful modifiers would reduce the page count by ten per cent. An author must, of course, play to his strengths, and Mr Millington thrives on snappy comebacks, diatribes, and wit.
But as one end of the seesaw rises, the other end – the story – lowers. Why, for instance, should Rob go on a ‘quest’ to find the answer to his condition? This behaviour is not impossible, but Mr Millington treats it as a sudden revelation whose worth is self-evident, and the reader is confronted with what appears to be the clumsy hand of the writer keen to invigorate the story. Why not therapy? Why not a holiday? Other elements, later in the book, clash in a similar way: characters behave off-key, and the reader feels that either he has misjudged the characters, or the characters are being manipulated externally. Characters are always being manipulated externally, of course, but the writer needs to work to conceal this fact. Though we all know that David Copperfield can’t really fly, it would be a shame to see the strings.
And there is the difficulty of theme. Summed up, the message of the book is equivalent to the old story of the man who counted the stars every night on behalf of the Lord, until his wife pointed out (as with Mr Millington’s other works, wisdom is often spoken in a female voice) that he was completely knackered and the enterprise was pointless, plus the washing up wasn’t going to do itself. So do not, Mr Millington suggests, obsess with the trivial. But why is this a difficulty with the book? Became the theme is more effectively delivered as a whisper than a happy slap. The story makes the point adequately in its first pages; the reader does not need to hear Rob obsessing about it, joking about it, or sparring with the suicidal Elizabeth about it. The theme does not have levels that justify so many returns, and by the final page of the book, enough is enough.
Still, the basic goal of this book is to make you laugh, and, at this, Mr Millington succeeds. Here Rob talks to Zach, an American ex-serviceman who has sworn to protect Rob from intruders during the night (for reasons that relate, typically, to American Fundamentalist Christians):
He wished me goodnight, and said he’d keep guard downstairs – adding that, if he were overpowered by intruders, he’d shout, ‘The wolves are free!’ as loud as possible as a code phrase so I knew, and might therefore have a shot at escaping through an upstairs window. I asked him why he didn’t simply go with shouting, ‘I’m being overpowered by intruders!’ He replied that code phrases were always better, as they eliminated the possibility of misinterpretation. And that, in any case, he’d feel a fool shouting, ‘I’m being overpowered by intruders!’
If that doesn’t make you wet yourself, you are probably suffering from an embarrassing urinary disorder, which will be explored in Mr Millington’s next book, with hilarious results! Sorry, book-reviewer humour. Overall, ‘Love and Other Near-Death Experiences’ is a solid piece of entertainment: funny, clever, moving, and surprisingly light given its subject matter. I would suggest it is an improvement on Mr Millington’s previous book, ‘A Certain Chemistry’, and, despite some blemishes, illustrates why Mil Millington is at the forefront of British comedy fiction.