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March 10, 2008 | by  | in Books | [ssba]

Abashed I Stood, By Fet Milner

Abashed I Stood is the first novel by Dunedin writer Fet Milner (who, after some years spent writing for Salient’s southern counterpart Critic, has gone off to the grey lights of Britain).

His novel tells the tale of narrator David Pollux Martin, a precocious queer rich-boy who lives half in contemporary Aotearoa and New York (with his father-figure, the corrupt business mogul Solomon), and half in the world of heaven and hell with his mother Lilith and the desembodied voices of his siblings.

Before God gave Adam docile Eve (who would follow him out of paradise), he had created Adam and Lilith as one being. But Lilith demanded to be on top, and when Adam couldn’t handle this, she left. The angels Snvi, Snsvi and Smnglof demanded she return; when she refused they vowed to kill one hundred of her children per day, and she counter-vowed to kill an equal number of Adam’s spawn.

Like Neil Gaiman in ‘A Parliament of Rooks’ (Sandman volume VI), Milner makes it explicit that Lilith left because Adam wouldn’t ride underneath during their lovemaking. Milner then goes on to state that Adam was being stupid because having sex with the female on top rules. While Abashed I Stood shares some similarities with Gaiman’s post-feminist mythological fantasies, it is really more like one of Blake’s prophecies, narrated by a self-aggrandising, self-deciphering prat, with more than a hint of Midnight’s Children’s Saleem Sinai (at one point observing “it is my view that self-mythologisation is not merely possible, but that you owe it to yourself.”).

But whereas Gaiman’s fantasies leave the reader with much to fill in and Blake’s prophecies have to be deciphered, Milner’s narrator David has the irritating habit of pointing out the book’s literary influences (Britain is “Urizen to the Americas’ Orc”). Milner’s major influences – Blake via Rushdie – are obvious, but since they are good influences this is only bad insofar as it interrupts the reader’s suspension of belief (which dulls the effect of the book’s fantastical elements).

At one point David asks his readers if he has written “some pseudointellectual postmodern wank-fest of a book.” The very fact that he asks this question suggests that the answer is yes. Furthermore, despite the narrator’s obvious delusions of grandeur and mysanthropic impulses, Milner can’t help but make him politically agreeable: David says he would rather consider himself a Kiwi than a Yank due to US foreign policy. So his tyranny is tempered by niceness, further diluting the book’s impact. This tempering does make David a more complex character; but one has to wonder how much of the complexity of Milner’s characters is intentional. For example, David’s surrogate mother Monica’s motivations for sleeping with both David and Solomon are never explained, and her actions don’t fit easily with earlier statements about her character. Is this confusion supposed to show that David himself does not understand her – or does it simply mean that Milner has not fleshed out her personality?

Certainly the book is flawed, and rather than building the narrative’s fantastical aspect to a stunning conclusion it just kinda seeps back into the everyday world and peters out. But the book’s great asset, what keeps it from being either average sci-fi/fantasy or pseudo-intellectual wankery, is the interaction between the truly fantastical ideas (which Milner tested out in the Bionic God poems, where they never quite gelled) and the more mundane human observations which formed the basis for his 2005 ‘The Grotesque’ column in Critic (potentially still the best student media column I’ve come across). Like Milner himself, David suffers psoriasis, “an autoimmune condition that most commonly results in a rather nasty case of dandruff – all over the body.” David of course claims that his condition is a mark of his immortal mother.

Abashed I Stood is riveting due to its mix of the fantastical and the mundanely gross, and the unique narrative voice brought up by a tension between David’s tyranny and ultimate compassion. Milner expresses a very delicate rage at the smallness of mankind (“the average person is a fucking retard”) diverted into dozens of anecdotes and diversions. David seems to be asking us why we are so petty out of ease when great debauchery is possible. The book’s philosophical centrepiece is an explanation that since to exist is to suffer, God’s true first statement, inaugurating creation, was really “Let there be suffering.” David’s misanthropy is delicate because it accepts pettiness and cruelty as part of life. It’s just a pity that all this trails off when it should explode.


About the Author ()

Tristan Egarr edited in 2008. He threw a chair once.

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