There’s a character in Cordelia Strube’s ninth novel who dons a Spider-Man mask and assaults a schoolboy, feeling “euphoric” and “energized” as he flees the scene. A few pages later he’s distracting a businessman crossing a busy road, ensuring that he gets hit by an oncoming taxi. This character threatens to start masturbating during an acting audition. He steals his neighbour’s panties off of the clothesline. And he screams profanities, time and again, at a kindly old man who only speaks Polish.
Is this character the sadistic villain of the book? An unstable henchman? Or maybe just a cartoonish, scene-stealing bit player?
Actually, he’s the hero.
Yet what’s even more surprising about Milosz, given the temperament of its protagonist, is that it’s not a nihilistic book. It doesn’t hate or distrust humanity as a whole. I wouldn’t even call it pessimistic. On the contrary, the world Toronto’s Strube has built around her protagonist Milo is really just complicated, bogged down with real-world messiness and an oscillating moral compass. And it turns out that there are extenuating circumstances behind nearly all of Milo’s offences listed above: the schoolboy was bullying his autistic next-door neighbour Robertson, the casting director encouraged him to go wild (Milo was already shirtless and guzzling beer)—the list goes on.
Most complicated of all, though, is the relationship between parents and children. That mute Polish man just might be Milo’s assumed-dead father Gus, who was only rediscovered, by fluke, sitting in the background of a reality TV show. Milosz is littered with these types of dysfunctional kinships: resentful sons, mothers at wits’ end, and even the odd soul struggling to find a way to patch things up.
What elevates this material to another level is how deftly Strube stacks character upon character, subplot upon subplot, until the reader is suddenly part of a far larger operation than the scant few pages under their left thumb would suggest possible. Milo’s struggle to find meaning in life leads him to try to mentor Robertson from afar, while also trying to patch up his acting career, seduce Robertson’s mother, tentatively reach out to this maybe-father, and puzzle out for himself what, exactly, words like happy—“those battered words people use casually, frequently”—can even mean in 2012.
With its breakneck pace and frequent dips into the absurd, it’s easy to draw comparisons with another literary Milo: the equally hapless hero of Sam Lipsyte’s 2010 novel The Ask. The crucial difference is that while Lipsyte’s book carried a streak of sadness and vengeance under its wildly comic exterior, Milosz lets all of those emotions spill and blend together on its increasingly sticky surface. Call it a funny novel with unexpected pockets of grief, or a sad novel with a surprising number of good jokes. Either way, the combination is potent; in genetics they call this sort of thing hybrid vigour. Lipsyte’s book doesn’t come close.
Strube also hides some mighty tasty Easter eggs for those willing to hunt for them. For instance, the only time Milo can recall his father ever showing affection for him is in a photo: “A very small Milo balances on Gus’s knee, biting into a candied apple. Gus looks as though he’s waiting for a bus.”
It’s a tender, aching image. But then, much later in the novel, Strube revisits and puts a hopeful spin on that very same metaphor. Milo is reflecting, yet again, on his life while sharing a quiet moment with Robertson. They’re sitting on a bench together; the boy is munching on an ice cream cone. Suddenly, it hits Milo: “Could this be happiness? This tiny blip, this pause between one thing and another, when nothing can be done but wait for a bus?”
Just like that, a new glimmer of optimism reveals itself. Maybe Milo was right all along, and Gus spent his life resigned to, and resentful of, the daily grind of parenthood. Or maybe Milo has spent his whole life blinded by bitterness, unable to see the love that was hiding behind his father’s half-glazed expression.
Coach House, 280 pp., $19.95, paperback
(review originally appeared in the Edmonton Journal, September 21, 2012)