In Praise of Martin Millar
By Max Dunbar.
The Anxiety of Kalix the Werewolf, Martin Millar, Piatkus 2013
I was leafing through the new W + A the other day and came across an excellent piece on publishing by my old tutor, the great Michael Schmidt. On the corruption of literary defeat, Michael says: ‘Success is slow; a hundred rejections may precede an acceptance. Or acceptance might never quite come. If it doesn’t, how do you deal with failure?’ Writers and poets, Michael argues, ‘who cannot get visibly published develop a strategy of blame. It is not, they insist, the quality of the work that deprives them of readership, it is the cabals that control the avenues of transmission. Jonathan Swift knew this: ‘If on Parnassus’ top you sit/You rarely bite, are always bit:/Each poet of inferior size/On you shall rail and criticise…’
My views were always roughly in accord with Michael’s on this. But whenever I read Martin Millar, I reconsider. How is it possible that a writer of such warmth, talent and narrative gifts remained so obscure for so long? It is one of the last great literary scandals that Millar has spent twenty years bouncing from one ramshackle independent publisher to another, while his idiotic contemporaries dominate books lists and broadsheet reviews. And if this sounds a bit fanboy, I should tell you that Neil Gaiman agrees with me. He says that ‘I [don’t] understand why Martin Millar isn’t as celebrated as Kurt Vonnegut, as rich as Terry Pratchett, as famous as Douglas Adams . . . I’ve been a fan of his work for almost twenty years.’ Millar himself has always been sanguine about his career, comparing himself to the itinerant novelist from Vonnegut’s novels:
There have been occasions when, after writing for a long time, and then wandering out absent-mindedly to the shops, I’ve caught sight of myself in the supermarket mirror. I suddenly realise that I’ve forgotten to get shaved for several days, I’ve apparently managed to spill soup down my T-shirt without noticing, and I’m bearing a strong resemblance to the beggar who’s sitting outside the shop. And I’ve thought to myself – My goodness, I’ve turned into Kilgore Trout.
I understand that the cry of ‘it’s who you know’ is more often than not an excuse for inability. But here’s the thing: if the market really was the ultimate indicator of talent, Martin Millar would right now be poolside in his Van Nuys estate, and Dan Brown would still be in Exeter, writing crosswords.
Millar was always obscure but his writing was never obscurantist. He writes about hippies, ravers, travellers and society’s marginalised. But although he’s anti-establishment in the best possible way, he never fell for the lie that strong storytelling is an Establishment relic and always maintained that his inspirations were Charles Dickens and Jane Austen. He’s also inspired by Wodehouse, and like Wodehouse he’s impossible to summarise. His 1995 novel Love and Peace with Melody Paradise features a modern-day Emma Woodhouse who is trying to resolve various romantic complications between her twelve travelling families, while also trying to put on a free festival. He also has a love of Ancient Greece, and as Martin Scott wrote a series of private detective novels in which boorish hard-drinking Thraxas the Investigator pounds the streets of an Athens ruined by drugs and graft. (The long-suffering Deputy Consul, who regularly finds himself having to employ Thraxas’s unreliable talents, is clearly based on Cicero.)
Millar’s current project is a series of books featuring Kalix the outlaw werewolf princess. Kalix has been outcast from the ruling werewolf family for killing her father, the Thane or leader of the werewolves, and his death tears the clan in two as various factions scramble to fill the power vacuum. When we first meet Kalix (and, as with Blanchot, you do have to read the books in the right order) she is homeless on the streets of South London, and suffering through regular panic attacks, crying jags and self-harm episodes. She is befriended by two struggling students, Daniel and Moonglow, who because of Kalix’s notoriety are quickly sucked into the dysfunctional struggles of the werewolf clan. There’s also the Avenaris Guild, a body of werewolf hunters trying to nail Kalix’s pelt, and Queen Malveria, ruler from a dimension of fire elementals who has a connection to the werewolves through her friendship with Thrix, a successful werewolf fashion designer.
It sounds so silly when you write it down, but the vivid characterisation, effortless dialogue and flawless insights into human relationships make the Kalix books an essential read. Trust me, you will soon be smiling whenever the Fire Queen makes one of her imperious teleportations into Daniel and Moonglow’s student flat. You will love her relationship with adoptive niece Agrivex who, unfazed by her aunt’s regular denunciations (‘dismal niece’ ‘vile girl’) shows no interest in fire elemental court protocol and spends her time shopping for hipster clothes in Camden market and watching a Japanese anime series called ‘Tokyo Top Pop Boom Boom Girl’. You will want Butix and Delix’s band to be a success, you will speculate upon the mysterious motives of ice-cool Dominil and you will wonder if Daniel and Moonglow will ever get it together. Millar creates a whole new world to live in and lets you fall in love with his characters.
The Kalix books are fun, but they are more than fantasy. Despite all the magic and laughter, Millar never lets you forget that the world is a hard cold place. When his characters aren’t facing death, they’re embattled by more everyday concerns: the ongoing recession, precarious rental accommodation, badly paid and exhausting seasonal jobs, unreliable public transport and the rising cost of food, tobacco, alcohol and utilities. Millar knows what it’s like to be young and poor in London, and knows it’s hard to stay positive sometimes. That he succeeds nevertheless in creating an intricate, autonomous, hilarious and also happy world is a testament to the man’s skills as a novelist and sense of adventure.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals. He is reviews editor of 3:AM.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, September 7th, 2013.