Ruby and the Stone Age Diet Martin Millar. Soft Skull. 160 pp, 13.95.
Martin Millar’s Ruby and the Stone-Age Diet is oddly lighthearted, given its subject matter of down-and-out squatters in and around Greater London, living lives not of quiet desperation so much as outright hallucination. The unnamed narrator, a would-be guitarist and occasional odd-job laborer, lives with his flatmate, the perennially barefoot Ruby, and pines after the long lost Cis—or perhaps not so long lost, as the narrator’s sense of time is rather skewed. And he’s apt to see Cis everywhere, along with robots, aliens, and, most engagingly, a colorful host of minor deities, ranging from Helena, the Goddess of Electric Guitar Players, to Ixanburg, the Bad Housing Demon.
Ruby, who finds eating disgusting and often destroys the only food in the house, shacks up with the surly Domino, whenever he’s in the mood, and composes tales—set off from the main narrative by italics—devoted to Cynthia, a contemporary, guitar-playing werewolf who finds the injunction to not consume humans rather onerous, indeed impossible, thus precipitating her into a nomadic existence, hounded by the forces of Lupus, the werewolf king.
These interpolated stories are an ongoing topic of discussion between Ruby and the narrator, but there are other stories that Ruby claims the narrator tells, and which, he tells us, he doesn’t recall telling—such as traveling across a barren planet with only a robot for company. Early on, when a visit to the Post Office includes the narrator being taken hostage, and a siege that “lasts for hours and hours until finally specially trained police burst in and shoot the robbers dead,” the narrator dutifully reports to Ruby what kept him. “Ruby says don’t be silly and I say it is true and she says it is just the acid making me think funny things and I say what acid and she says the acid she put in my tea to make me feel better . . .” After that, there’s not much point in trying to separate what actually happens from what the narrator says happens.
In another universe, such uncertainty might lead to all kinds of meta-talk about levels of reality and modes of being and undecidable fictionality and whatnot, particularly when a character named Ruby turns up in the werewolf story, and when the robot at times seems to double for Ruby. One of the great merits of Millar’s narrator is that no interpretive ideas occur to him, and he would be rather shocked if anyone else located such meanings in his ramblings. He is as naive and direct a narrator as one could imagine, giving his misadventures the “just-so” authority and self-evident causality that often occurs when childish minds try to describe what happened. In one particularly amusing bit, he returns home with a female pickup, but, keyless, must break into his room via the window, only to find that he has padlocked his room on the outside, so he has to go out the window again and in through a window in a neighboring room, only to find that the unduly paranoid occupant of that room has padlocked his door on the outside as well. The narrator rips the door to shreds so he can admit his guest at the front door of the flat, escort her through his neighbor’s door and window and finally in through the window to his own room. Despite these obstacles, the narrator declares, “all in all it is a pleasant experience.”
Such moments of outright comedy are relatively rare, however, and the litany of odd-jobs, where the narrator is mostly pathetically inept, begin to take on a certain real world grimness. Whether loading things, doing construction work, or filing claims, the narrator rarely works more than a few days at a time, either too demoralized by the work or prevented from reporting to work due to a pack of prowling snow-wolves. The vague air of psychosis hanging over these lives provides both their pathos and their comedy, so that a strange dissociation occurs. It’s hard to imagine lives with less purpose, but any sense of existential abyss is foreshortened by the fact that the characters seem to find it impossible to imagine their own lives as well. What happens is what happens. What they do is what they do. And sometimes an outrageous, imagined world intrudes into the rather deadened real world.
Dry as his wit, Millar’s prose is spare, lean, and direct, but not without its flashes of unassuming poetry: “The cactus grows a wonderful flower, radiant yellow, a little desert oasis in my damp bedroom.” The narrator believes his cactus to be sacred to Aphrodite and a gift from Cis, so its flowering is supposed to harbinge his beloved’s return. Elsewhere, skill at literal transcription affords nearly Beckettian moments such as:
“Where I am standing everything becomes unbearable. I walk to the other side of the room to see if it is any better there.
No success. This side of the room is just as bad.”
The overall effect of reading such an attenuated existence is a bit mind-numbing. One gets a sense of unending days, largely undifferentiated, tedious beyond all help, but for hallucination, the odd windfall (such as getting two day’s pay for one day’s work), and, the mainstay of the narrator’s world, the friendship of Ruby. It’s not easy to say which of the two is the other’s lifeline, but it’s clear that without each other—the narrator tends to make the tea, while Ruby can paint and has the amazing capacity to plan meals ahead of time—they would be nearly catatonic. Highpoints of their relationship are a lot of fun with a “radical can-opener” and a scene in which the narrator, with all gentlemanly aplomb, but rather ineptly, helps Ruby insert her diaphragm. “The room is covered in spermicide. Any sperm that comes in will have no chance of survival whatsoever.” On the subject of sex: Ruby provides a graphic account of Cis and the narrator in bed that involves every kind of bodily fluid, particularly menstrual blood, and the narrator, at Ruby’s urging, goes on a series of meetings via contacts through personal ads (all having to do with submission), a source of squalid comedy that surfaces now and then, but without any particular narrative arc.
Forward movement is rather better provided by the tale of Cynthia the werewolf, whose adventures come to seem a chorus for the lives of Ruby and the narrator. Indeed, when Ruby decides to end Cynthia’s tale with the young werewolf in a kind of limbo, with no clear alternatives to her sad fate of eating people she likes and suffering for it, the narrator offers a happy ending in which Cynthia’s long lost love returns and her band becomes a huge success. At last, it seems, the narrator has learned that fiction can be a compensation—Cis does not return and his band’s gig, to an audience of eleven, loses money—but it seems that a much earlier moment in Cynthia’s saga captures the condition of the heroes of both narratives:
“This is a fucking lousy day, thinks the young werewolf. Everyone is against me. I haven’t a friend in the world and I’ve nowhere to live and I’ve no one to fuck. The only things I feel are hunger and loneliness. This is far from being a beautiful world. It isn’t even pleasant.”
As commentary, this passage captures the plight of the disaffected youth in Millar’s story, living (illegally in empty houses) lives as hand-to-mouth as any street urchins in the days of Dickens, and the only thing that makes the narrator’s vision less bleak than Cynthia’s is that he can’t tell reality from fantasy, can imagine inspiring deities, has, for a time, one true friend in the world.
Donald Brown reviews poetry, fiction, and theater for The New Haven Review and The New Haven Advocate.
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