February 2009

Kylee Stoor

fiction

Milk, Sulphate, and Alby Starvation by Martin Millar

Comic collector and sulphate dealer Alby Starvation finds out through a trial-and-error fasting method what eluded his doctor: that milk makes him quite ill. He’s not merely lactose intolerant; milk consumption turns his skin a “washed-up yellow long-dead-vegetation colour,” makes his eyes bleed, and causes indescribable intestinal pain. Understandably, he’s pretty excited when simply eliminating a food group from his diet makes him feel much better, and he spreads the word. There must be something in the milk in Brixton, because when others start removing milk from their diets, they also are miraculously cured.

Alby is given all the credit and a lot of media attention for discovering the benefits of a milk-less diet, resulting in plummeting milk sales. Here’s where things take a turn for the worse for Alby: the furious Milk Marketing Board hires a hitman to take out their most vocal opposition. Further description of the plot of this oddly charming little novel just adds to its absurdity. In loosely related side stories, a wealthy Chinese man searches for Alby, his friends Fran and Julie study martial arts and routinely indulge in narcotics, and two young men, Wu and Cheng, fight a series of intense, well attended video game battles. Short snippets of thought and conversation bounce back and forth between characters, like colorful beads on a string with no recognizable pattern. A less interesting, less clever story might get lost in this disjunction, but in this case, I can’t imagine the story told more linearly.

There’s a surprising amount of elegance and emotion that can be caught in a single paragraph of an interlude describing Cheng’s foray into a videogame store to buy an illegal practice console, or Alby’s fretting over the loss of his comics. Of course, it’s funny, too. Watching the Milk Marketing Board’s hired assassin, June, as she plots her kill is cheeky noir, while Alby’s encounter with a potential comic salesman turns into a slapstick brawl. Millar’s bird’s eye view of these separate vignettes creates a patchwork of a novel that is fresh, clever, and compulsively readable.

Martin Millar has gained a cult following with novels like The Good Fairies of New York and Lonely Werewolf Girl, and this reissue from Soft Skull Press of his first novel, originally published in 1987, is simply delightful. I was skeptical of the book at first, largely due to the large purple nose and forehead jutting out from the spine of the book and its pixilated title. The cover seems to be capitalizing on the book’s “retro” appeal, but the story is somehow timeless. The Brixton in which Alby Starvation lives is not the Brixton of 1987, but a tinted, slanted view of Alby’s particular universe. Like Rivka Galchen’s remarkable Atmospheric Disturbances, Millar’s novel so thoroughly embraces its narrator’s paranoia that I found myself questioning my own sense of reality. Even so, real or not, I loved this book.

Milk, Sulphate, and Alby Starvation by Martin Millar
Soft Skull Press
ISBN: 978-1-59376-227-8
179 pages