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#18 – A Certain Chemistry

June 15, 2007

is this love of ours a lie? is it chemically derived?You got me, Mil Millington. You got me hard. With A Certain Chemistry, you led me down the garden path worse than the judge in my first year moot. Well played.

So, in a sentence: A Certain Chemistry is narrated by an unlikeable prick named Tom Cartwright, a professional ghostwriter, who cheats on his awesome, awesome girlfriend with a soap opera star whose autobiography he’s writing. Not only that, but he’s unapologetically cheating on her, while fully aware of how awesome she is. I cannot stress this enough. Tom justifies his actions and deludes himself into believing everything he’s doing will work out in the end. And worst of all, he expects the reader to agree and sympathize with him. No – not even expects. He assumes I’m on his side. He ends countless chapters with rhetorical, “What was I supposed to do?”-style questions. You were supposed to not cheat on your awesome girlfriend, Cartwright. You jackass.

The thing is, in spite of being a dick, Tom’s a pretty interesting character. Being a ghostwriter is a fascinating job, which I would have liked to have heard more about beyond the book’s introduction. Plus, his voice reminded me of nothing so much of Rob Gordon from High Fidelity…just, Rob back when he was cheating on Laura while she was pregnant, without the distance necessary to agree years later when Liz calls him a fucking arsehole. Anyway, by about the middle of the book, I was hating Tom Cartwright. Not in the good way I hate Dolores Umbridge because she’s a frustrating and perfect villain, but the way I hate Holden Caulfield for being a whiny hypocrite. (We can talk about my thinking Harry Potter is brilliant literature and Catcher in the Rye is crap later, there are more pressing issues right now.)

This is how the author gets me. Millington’s been setting Tom up as a selfish, deluded ass the whole book, but he’s a first-person narrator having a secret affair – naturally, we’ve only had the opportunity to get his point of view. Once things start to crumble and his secret gets out, Tom’s fantasy bubble bursts, and it is completely satisfying to the reader. Reality finally starts creeping in, and Cartwright starts realizing how horrible he’s been: too late, too late. He still thinks he’s got our sympathy, but he’s maybe not as convinced he deserves it. And there’s where Millington gets me. I won’t spoil any of the ending, but watching Tom get slowly taken down peg by peg is some wonderful schadenfreude.

However, the highlight of A Certain Chemistry, at least for me, comes in the metatext. See, the chapter breaks are narrated by God, and as is generally the case things start to get much more interesting when God starts talking to you. He claims that the characters in the story don’t matter, he’s just using them as a parable of sorts. According to God, when he made humans he expected a maximum life span of 40 years, tops – he says he never expected “flood warnings and antibiotics and office work”. So all the chemicals he put in people to stimulate attraction and ensure the propagation of the species – dopamine and phenethylamine and oxytocin and so on – he only designed them to last the necessary four or five years. Basically, God apologies that we are driven to infidelity by our chemical makeup, but it’s out of his hands.  In his own words, what we think of as love is really just where “molecules and opportunity” meet.  It’s an interesting theory, and amusingly presented. A Certain Chemistry is probably worth reading, if not for the inter-chapter interludes by God, then for coming to hate a right bastard like Tom, then watching him get taken apart. I’m anxious to go on to Mil Millington’s semi-autobiographical Things My Girlfriend and I Have Argued About, to see if he also writes himself to be so utterly unsympathetic.

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