Milton's Elements

by Cordelia Strube,
ISBN: 000648199X

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Paradise On Hold
by Anne Denoon

CORDELIA STRUBE`S ALEX& Zee was short-listed forthe SmithBooks/Books in Canada First Novel Award. Although it did not win, itwas the choice of the redoubtable Joyce Marshall, a circumstance that compelledme, for one, to sit up and pay close attention. Now Strube`s second novel, Milton`s Elements, has arrived, hot on the heels of her first. The protagonists of Alex & Zee were a coupleof middle-class boomers suffering from a kind of anomie a deux. Milton`s Elements describes a similar relationship, but in it Strube descends a rung ortwo on the social ladder, focuses on the mate`s point of view, and darkens herpalette almost to black. Before the book begins, Milton and Judith`s three-year-olddaughter has been killed by a falling television set (which shows, right off,how little Strube is intimidated by irony). Judith copes through therapy andspiritualism, and decides that she wants another child. Milton buys a new TVset and loses himself in fantasies of violence, ridiculing and resisting hiswife`s new-age recovery. His theory is, 14 people make up feelings sothey have something to talk about." When Milton loses his factory job, andhis fantasies become momentarily real (he strikes Judith during an argument),she leaves him. Soon he`s unwillingly embroiled with his nightmarish family,which bears a structural resemblance to Zee`s in Strube`s first book, but withdysfunction cranked up to the max. Eventually, Milton`s two sisters (one a pathologicalliar, drug addict, and part-time prostitute, the other a mother of twosons, and the family`s designated coper), his gay brother (near death fromAIDS), and his sickly, near-senile, pistol-packing mother are allliving with him. Or rather, most of them are dying with him, as it turns out.But the only person for whom Milton (who along with his other troubles isdyslexic and has never learned to read properly) can really feel anythingresembling affection is his "retarded" neighbour, Winnie. Does all this soundexcessive, manipulative, and contrived? Yes, and there`s plenty more of thesame, but it is a measure of Strube`s deadpan audacity that she can handle suchperilous material in a way that is neither condescending nor cutesy, althoughit did -intentionally, I think - make me a bit edgy at times. Infact, she may have coined a new genre: call it Existential Gothic, perhaps, ormaybe Anomic Comedy? Milton, a whining sad sack, is the quintessential anti-hero,and it`s clear that he will probably never get entirely wise to himself. He`spermanently at war, in a passive, couch-potato way, of course, with allthe "cementheads" out there in the real world, and relies mainly ontelevision iconography (from serial killers to caged gorillas to Bruce Willis)for guidance. Although "his thoughts are starting to look like TVcommercials," he still has principles. He rescues a suicidal young womanfrom a burning building, and "would like to tell [Winnie] there`s a pointin loving people and in being decent, but nothing in his life has proved thisto be true. And he doesn`t want to lie." He`d also like to win Judith backfrom her new, nice-guy boyfriend, whom Milton quickly baptizes "theGoof," but he can`t quite figure out how to do it. For Milton, "real life will always be adisappointment." Yet, somehow, Strube makes you care enough about him, andthe tiny increments of understanding he does attain, to keep reading. As otherreviewers have noted, Strube`s experience as a playwright and actor may accountfor her mastery of dialogue. By placing the action in the present tense andadhering strictly to her protagonist`s point of view, she plunges the readerdirectly and forcefully into Milton`s uncomfortable world. Although in both of her novels Strube zeroes in on thestand-off (it`s too enervated to be called a war) between men and women,I think she is actually sneaking up on a subject that is broader and deeper.The quotation from Paradise Lost at the beginning of this book - "Ourtorments also may in length of time become our elements" - not onlyhelps to decode its title, but also its theme. Strube`s isolated, defensive menand biologically driven women personify the unending struggle between despairand hope, between giving up or forging on under life`s crushing blows. Milton`s Elements is a dark, sardonic demonstration that eventuallyeveryone, male or female, must either adapt or die.

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