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Fairies in New York and Werewolves in London

By (June 1, 2008) No Comment

The Good Fairies of New York

By Martin Millar
Soft Skull Press, 2006 (original publication date 1992)

Lonely Werewolf Girl

By Martin Millar
Soft Skull Press, 2008 (original publication date 2007)

I first picked up The Good Fairies of New York by Martin Millar because my all-knowing Amazon.com account directed me to its introduction by Neil Gaiman. I’ve stopped questioning the petty gods over at Amazon. At 6 AM when I’m taking my first dip into the Internet surf, I’m exhausted and suggestible enough to be at the total mercy of its recommendations; moreover, I’m a dyed-in-the-wool fan of Gaiman’s Sandman graphic novels, so his recommendation had me clicking on the “One-Click Ordering” button within seconds. A few days later when I received the fruit of my impulsive, one-click labor, I found that both Amazon and Neil Gaiman were correct about Martin Millar and me. It was absolutely love at first read. If only Internet dating were this easy.  

So the publication of Martin Millar’s new book Lonely Werewolf Girl on April 20th from Soft Skull Press and the June Tor release of Good Fairies of New York in mass market paperback offer an opportunity to celebrate both books – I want every person in the US to read Millar’s work, in part because that would facilitate the US publication of his back catalog for my own greedy consumption.

Good Fairies was originally published in 1992 while Lonely Werewolf Girl came into print last year, and in some ways, the fifteen year gap feels palpable. The real-life corollary of the crumbling, bohemian Lower East Side of Good Fairies has been inundated with sleek bars and rich hipsters since the early Nineties, and I certainly felt some nostalgia while reading. The books, however, also seem contemporaneous because Millar’s concept of the urban area as a playground for mythical creatures reappears in Lonely Werewolf Girl’s foray into twenty-first century London.

Good Fairies of New York begins with two female fairies named Heather MacKintosh and Morag MacPherson landing in an unsuspecting mortal’s apartment:

Dinnie, an overweight enemy of humanity, was the worst violinist in New York, but was practicing gamely when two cute little fairies stumbled through his fourth-floor window and vomited on the carpet. “Sorry,” said one…. “Don’t worry,” said the other. “Fairy vomit is no doubt sweet-smelling to humans.”

Dinnie despairs because he supposes that these unexpected houseguests are hallucinations, and “he knew that he did not have enough money to see a therapist.” But the drunken fairies are all too real, and they immediately intrude into Dinnie’s life by insisting that he lose weight, learn to play the violin properly, and get a girlfriend to settle a Pygmalion-esque argument between themselves. Supernatural, beautiful creatures like these two Scottish fairies often disrupt the lives of regular humans in the course of Millar’s books, and they provide the rock n’ roll, glamorous counterparts to mundane human experience.

In Lonely Werewolf Girl, Kalix MacRinnalch (the lonely werewolf girl of the title) enters the life of college student Daniel while escaping a bounty hunter—afterwards Daniel feels that “the whole experience was the most exciting thing that had ever happened to him.” Like the fairies Heather and Morag, Kalix effortlessly dominates the attention of the humans she imposes upon. And the members of Kalix’s complicated werewolf family are equally as arresting: they design clothes, gossip with demigods, rule Scottish castles, start rock bands, drink laudanum, sleep around, and kill each other. Furthermore, fairy and werewolf alike understand that there is nothing cooler in this world (or any other one) than punk—the New York Dolls, the Runaways, Johnny Thunders, blue hair, and ripped kilts fascinate Millar’s heroines in both novels, and they all resemble punk rebels in their own right. In comparison, Daniel’s human experiences such as college finals, moving anxiety, and lovelorn crushes are thrown into comic relief, and Dinnie’s dieting seems banal. Of course, there are celebrities, moguls, fashion divas, and rock stars in reality, but they do seem supernatural, don’t they? I appreciate Millar’s amusing suggestion that the rich and famous aren’t human at all.

Millar’s comparisons between fantastically cool werewolves and decidedly ordinary humans lead to farcical moments in which the humans cannot quite believe what they’re seeing. In one early Werewolf scene, for instance, Daniel and Moonglow (his love interest and roommate) find the courage to ask Thrix, Kalix’s fashion-designer/enchantress/werewolf sister, to aid them in helping Kalix, who is not only being hunted by assassins but living on the street; however, the humans’ tender-hearted attempt to save young Kalix from destitution and death only results in confusion. Just as Thrix debates whether or not to throw Moonglow out the window for intruding in werewolf affairs, one of Thrix’s clients, the fire goddess Malveria, bursts into the room crying because another goddess wore the same slippers (supposed Thrix originals) as she did to a ball:

Thrix was finding this hard to cope with. On one side she had two humans making unwelcome enquiries about werewolf affairs and on the other she had a furious fire elemental making complaints which could not be true. Because Thrix had just designed the slippers. It was not possible that anyone else could have been wearing them. Any successful designer became used to being plagiarised but not on the same day that they left the stock company…. The Fire Queen started sobbing on Daniel’s shoulder again. Daniel, perplexed, wondered what he should do. He presumed that this exotic beauty was some supermodel who had been upset at a fashion show. He patted her hand. “There, there,” he said.

The reader often shares Daniel’s bewilderment at werewolves, werewolf etiquette, beautiful fire elementals, and fashion sabotage because Millar deliberately makes the plot convoluted—there are so many intersecting characters, motivations, and relationships in the werewolf family that we only find our footing gradually, and then another twist makes us doubt everything that came before. Millar’s technique of writing short chapters that focus on different characters, different perspectives, and different plotlines requires us to puzzle together sundry snippets of information, but the comic farce that arises from these interlocking stories certainly rewards the effort. And spectacularly, all of the novel’s elements (and elementals) come together in a funny and bloody finale. It’s a technique that Millar has perfected in the years between writing Good Fairies of New York and Lonely Werewolf Girl—while the novels share the same farcical and jumbled style, Werewolf paints a larger and more complex world because it is almost twice the length of Good Fairies.

While elaborate farces occur in both novels, Millar grounds his whimsical, whirl-a-gig narratives in the local geography and color of city life. Vivid recreations of New York and London as well as the humble circumstances of key characters emphasize the contrast between gritty reality and the fantastic—this contrast not only keeps Millar’s comedy fresh but also renders his books touchingly humane. For example, in Good Fairies when the fairy Morag first encounters Kerry (Dinnie’s neighbor and crush), she discovers that the gorgeous Kerry, “with her silvery blue hair, her hippie clothing, her flower alphabet and her quixotic quest to play New York Dolls guitar solos,” has Crohn’s disease. The fairy has no response to her friend’s ailment except to sigh, “Being human did seem to involve some very unpleasant things.” Even though these flighty fairies are immune to disease, they offer Kerry an escape from her too-real human concerns. Visiting hours, like so many human rules, don’t apply to them:

“An important difference between fairies and humans is that we are small and invisible and you are not. We don’t have to wait for visiting time….” Inside Kerry was weak but pleased to see the fairies. Morag hopped onto the bed…. “We would like to point out that things are not as bad as you think, because you are talented, popular, pleasant and beautiful, and that being the case, so what if you have a colostomy bag, you are still streets ahead of most humans.”

Just as Kerry, a dying human, elicits the reader’s sympathy in Good Fairies, the werewolf Kalix finds herself in a terribly human situation after running away from her family’s Scottish castle. When we first find Kalix in a London alley, she still has the kind of beauty that doesn’t appear “outside of a magazine,” but it’s easy to understand why her despair has touched average, struggling students like Moonglow and Daniel. In one sensitive description after another, Millar depicts the despair caused by Kalix’s homelessness, addiction, and heartbreak:

The light faded quickly in the winter afternoon. As Kalix walked down the street she was hit by a sudden wave of depression as powerful as any she’d ever felt before. It poured down like a heavy black rain, covering her till she staggered under its weight. Kalix tried to keep on walking but it was difficult. The tide of depression was frightening in its intensity. Kalix realised that his was the final attack which was going to kill her…. She needed to find some private place. The waves of depression brought on a terrible anxiety which began to affect her senses. Her heart pounded, breathing became difficult and her vision was blurred. She searched right and left for an alleyway to crawl into. She couldn’t find one. Kalix swayed on her feet and reached out her arm to steady herself against the wall. If anyone noticed her plight, no one stopped to help as she stumbled along.

This passage, elided from a two-page description, also demonstrates, however, that beautiful prose cannot be numbered among the things to love about Millar’s books. The stiffness and repetitiveness on display here – the recurrence of “depression,” for instance, or the strained formality of the word “plight” – are representative of Millar’s clunky, overwrought prose throughout. (Another frustrating tic is his habit of describing the werewolves as having the sort of beauty that doesn’t appear “outside a magazine.” Is it impossible to conceive female beauty beyond the pages of Vogue?)

What Millar needs is a merciless editor, but he seems so far to have worked mostly on his own (he admits on his website that he did his own proofreading for the UK edition of Lonely Werewolf Girl and apologizes for the resulting typos). Even so, his sense of humor is so feisty and his stories are so entertaining that I’ve always read right through the infelicities of the prose.

And happily, his dialogue is livelier – and more profane – than his exposition, mostly because his characters constantly bicker and boast. Almost every character in The Good Fairies of New York possesses a snarky streak, and by-the-way slapdowns like the following between Dinnie and a fairy named Heather crop up in nearly every interaction:

“The air here is filthy. It is ruining my looks,” [Heather said]…. “It helps if you don’t crawl home in the gutter,” commented Dinnie. Heather sharply told him to shut up.

Amidst such squabbling, Millar’s dialogue also voices concern for the homeless and dispossessed that populate East Fourth Street where the fairies, Dinnie, and Kerry live—in both novels, Millar doesn’t shy away from the realities of city living even as he populates the terrain with mythical dynamos. While Daniel and Moonglow save Kalix from the street, the fairies Morag and Heather offer the homeless another kind of solace:

“I am here to get some bagels.”
“What are bagels?”
“Bready things. I rip bits off them for breakfast sometimes and then the people in the delis think they’re damaged and they give them to tramps outside. Have you noticed how many people here just live on the streets?”
“Of course. I spend half my time finding food and change for them. Have you noticed how they keep dying on Fourth Street?” Morag had. Around ten since she arrived.

Small moments in which fairies and werewolves chat and interact with the cities around them make the books feel genuine and vital even as the ridiculous plots about self-involved, surreal creatures barrel forward. And throughout it all Millar exhibits a keen eye for detail. Lonely Werewolf Girl ends with two werewolves (named Beauty and Delicious) making their rock debut in a little bar in North London, and Millar takes pains to describe all of the rehearsals and preparations that even werewolf musicians must make before putting on a concert. In one scene, Kalix and the band’s manager Dominil (who is also a werewolf relative) hand out fliers at a tube station—even as the pedestrians notice the intense beauty of Kalix and Dominil, which graces every werewolf in the novel, the two get soaked in the rain like everyone else:

Dominil was waiting for Kalix in the small concourse at the top of the elevator at Camden tube station. She leant against the wall, reading a book, ignoring the many stares from passersby. Sensing Kalix’s arrival, she looked up. Kalix glanced at the book. “Sulpicia,” said Dominil. “A contemporary of Tibullus. I have a bag of leaflets. Let’s go to work.” There were already people handing out fliers outside the tube and they had to walk some yards up the road to find a vacant position. It was cold and wet and the leaflets outside the tube station were having little success. Again however, Dominil and Kalix attracted a lot of attention. They handed out leaflets for an hour. By this time Kalix was soaked. Dominil’s long leather coat kept her dry, though he white hair hung limply over her collar. Finally Dominil announced that they’d done enough for now. “I am uncertain if this is beneficial or not,” she admitted to Kalix. “So many people hand out leaflets here. Does anyone ever read them?”

Not only does Millar mention that Dominil likes to read classical Roman poets in her spare time, but he particularizes that her hair becomes limp over the course of an hour. In addition (though, this being Millar, it’s a touch heavy-handed), he makes Dominil’s manner of speaking almost robotic to designate her as a cold, unsympathetic ice queen. Details of habits, dress—high and low fashion—and personality makeover the traditional image of the fierce werewolf on the fringe of society. In Millar’s novel, werewolves wait outside subway stations just like everyone else, and the fantastic result is that readers starts looking for them after they’ve put down the book and walked out amongst the crowds in the city streets.
Sharon Fulton is a PhD candidate in English literature at Columbia University. She is working on a dissertation about the role of animals in the literary dream-visions of the late fourteenth-century.

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