Wednesday, 12 March 2008

Love and Other Near Death Experiences

There is a nice picture of me and the Other Half (a ‘detail’ of which appears next to these words) on the Big Green Bookshop’s Facebook page. It was taken by Mark Farley (Bookseller to the Stars) and he and I have been exchanging desultory conversation about it on said site. In case you don’t have access to Facebook the conversation has gone like this:

MF: Alis, are you laughing at 'A Thousand Splendid Suns"?
AH: Who could ever laugh at ATSS?! No, it's Mil Millington's Love and Other Near Death Experiences - such a cool book!
MF: Khaled will be disappointed....
AH: I'm sure he'll get over it!

Such is the wit and repartee which I indulge in with my Facebook friends. Ahem…
Incidentally, the worrying thing about this little exchange is that when Mark says ‘Khaled will be disappointed’ he probably means that he will know this personally as even a cursory look at his blog will show you that it is well named and people who twinkle in various celebrity firmaments drop in with nonchalent regularity to allow him to sell books to them.
The other worrying thing (so many worrying things in so few lines) is that I have managed to imply (hah! so easy to confuse and mislead if you have even a passing acquaintance with what you’re doing…) that I have read A Thousand Splendid Suns. I have not. I tried to read it but I have this problem with violence against women. I can’t cope with it. Though I have never been a victim of it or even witnessed it first hand, it brings me out in such a visceral rage that it’s best not to go near the subject at all. So, although my friends have raved about ATSS and I could tell, from what I did read, that the writing was lovely, etc, I couldn’t read it. But anyway, who could laugh at it?

What I was laughing at, as will have been picked up by the more observant amongst you, was Mil Millington’s astonishingly amusing book Love and Other Near Death Experiences.

Mil (I shall call him Mil as if I know him, which I clearly don’t. Apart from Mark Farley and the guys at the Big Green Bookshop, I know nobody famous) used to have a column in the Saturday Guardian (or possibly Observer – they’re pretty much the only weekend papers I read) magazine. It was called Things My Girlfriend and I have Argued About. It was funny. Sometimes it was hilarious. Not just because of the things they argued about ( I actually can’t remember a single one) but just because of the way Mil reported the said arguments. He then wrote a book called – and who can blame him for cashing in on his success – Things My Girlfriend and I Have Argued About. This was also hilarious, so when I saw LAONDE on the shelves at the Big Green Bookshop on Saturday (don’t be fooled by the photo which has ATSS hovering near my left shoulder, H and M aren’t shelved anywhere near each other, even in The Big Green Bookshop, where they could have been forgiven, on Saturday, for not having anything alphabetised – as it was, it was miraculously orderly, but I digress) I grabbed it and started reading. I mean, who can resist a book whose first chapter consists solely of the line:

'Hello. My name is Robert, and I haven’t been dead for sixty three days now.'

I mean, it just screams ‘You wanna know why, don’t you?’ Doesn’t it?

The basic premiss goes like this (just quoting the cover blurb)

Rob Garland is getting married in two months. Oddly, however, this is the least of his problems. More vexing than the seating arrangements and the choice of stationery is the fact that Rob should be dead: and he knows it. He should have been sitting in a pub at the very moment it was wiped from the earth, but he wasn’t, thanks to a series of pointless coincidences.
Now he’s paralysed by the knowledge that every decision he makes, no matter how tiny, has potentially enormous consequences. Faced with an ultimatum from his girlfriend, he pours his heart out to listeners of his late-night jazz show. It’s a decision he may live to regret…

The said girlfriend - who insists on addressing him as ‘babe’ and is insufferably irritating – does not, fortunately, take up much space in the book because, after his pouring his heart out on the radio, Rob starts making very weird acquaintances and finds himself on a quest, which may only tangentially be about sorting out his terminal tendency towards indecision.

That’s enough about the plot. What really makes this book worth reading is the sheer humour. Don’t read it if you’re offended by a lot of swearing as several of the characters swear constantly and inventively at each other. Personally, though I’m not much given to what one character in the book (a huge American ex-serviceman who speaks in US army jargon almost the whole time) refers to as ‘cussing’, I found it added to the general hilarity. Let me quote you some lines. If they don’t make you at least smirk, this book probably won’t appeal to you. if they tickle your funny bone you should probably rush out and acquire LAONDE immediately.

From the beginning of the book, while the aforementioned wedding is being planned:

‘Asking someone to be your best man is rather like letting a mate know that you think he is admirably resilient by abruptly pushing him down some stairs.’

Yes, the general sentiment is funny, but the way the sentence is constructed makes it more so. Not just ‘resilient’ but ‘admirably resilient’ not pushing him down ‘the stairs’ but ‘some stairs’. Why do these choices of words make it funnier? I don’t know. But they do.

And this, from a scene where the two main characters are, for reasons I won’t go into, in a pitch-black, deserted, ex-factory, waiting for somebody.

‘Did you hear that?’
‘What do you think it was? Do you think it was Zach? [Zach, unsurprisingly, is the US marine type] Maybe it was Beth? Do you think it was Zach or Beth?’
‘Hello?’ she shouted. ‘Zach? Beth? Is that you?’
‘Shut up!’ I hissed.
‘Jesus fucking Christ – I thought you were a book addict. Haven’t you ever read The Rats? By James Herbert?’
‘I’m embarrassed to say that I haven’t, no.’
‘It’s about these rats.’
‘There could be a whole bastard horde of rats in this place. And there you are telling them right where we are. They’ll swarm over us in the darkness, tearing us to bits with their lacerating claws and needle-like, pestilent teeth.’
‘Fuck me. How dreadfully lurid of them…. Zach? Beth?’

See? My shoulders are shaking so much whilst I’m typing that I’ve just had to go back and correct a load of typos.
Not only does this beautifully exemplify the relationship between Rob and Elizabeth –he’s a total coward who can’t believe her blasé attitude towards pretty much everything and she’s a chain-smoking depressive who couldn’t give a stuff – it is also just killingly amusing. The astonishing incongruity of the juxtaposition of 'Fuck me' and 'how dreadfully lurid of them' is priceless. And I’ve never laughed so much at the simple syllable ‘Ahhh’. It’s only funny because the characters have been developed so well that there’s basically nothing else Elizabeth could say (less gifted characters, I suppose, might have gone for ‘Naturally’ or ‘why am I not surprised?’) in these circumstances.
I laughed hard at his passage for at least half a minute and then nearly choked on my breakfast trying to explain to the Ultimate Frisbee Freak what I was laughing about. He’s next up for the book.

Add to this amusement value a highly satisfying ending and it’s a book to gladden the heart at the end of a long, dark winter.

You can catch Mil Millington here and there are more reviews of the book, in case you’re interested, here and here.
Go on, have a laff!


KAREN said...

I love, love, LOVE Mil Millington! Have you read A Certain Chemistry - I think that was my favourite :o)

Alis said...

Hi Karen - no, haven't read A Certain Chemistry yet, it's now on my 'books i must buy' list!