“Amnesia had long streaming hair bleached to a dazzling white and was always clad in black. Flying through the air she seemed like a Valkyrie warrior plunging down from Valhalla.”
What’s in a name? For Elfish, the heroine of Martin Millar’s new novel, Dreams of Sex and Stage Diving, the name means everything. Unlike Romeo and Juliet, Elfish and her ex-boyfriend, Mo, are not star-crossed lovers, and when they break up, both want ownership of the name Queen Mab for their bands. Never mind that Elfish doesn’t have a band. She has a guitar, a leather jacket held together by patches and safety pins, and a small crowd of half-friends just waiting to help her—they just don’t know it yet.
Elfish’s obsession with claiming Queen Mab for her own takes precedence over the lives and problems of the people around her: Aisha’s agoraphobia, Shonen’s bulimia, May’s homelessness, Aran’s debilitating depression. But when she realizes that they all have skills that will help her to achieve her goal—to recite Mercutio’s referential lines from Romeo and Juliet and perform a set with her band before Mo and his band take the stage, thus earning the rights to Queen Mab—Elfish secures their loyalty with a network of lies.
The abandon with which Elfish lives, drinks, and loves makes her a powerful protagonist. She is singleminded in her attempts to get Queen Mab off the ground, leaving no room for her to care about anything else—as opposed to her friends and bandmates, who are left defenseless because they care too much. Millar’s minimalist style and deftness in portraying the grimy sludge of Elfish’s living conditions and personal hygiene give the novel a true-to-life punk rock atmosphere:
Good party, thought Elfish, but did not manage to raise a smile. Needing liquid, she began to crawl. As she crawled the fresh sick on her clothes rubbed off on the floor leaving a trail behind her like a snail. Her hand came into contact with a can. Shaking it, she found that it was half full, and drank from it. A cigarette butt flowed from the can into her mouth and she was sick again, followed this time by long shuddering convulsions.”
And what would a book titled Dreams of Sex and Stage Diving be without lots of sex? Millar’s portrayal of Brixton suggests there’s little else to do there besides drink and copulate. The sex comes early and often, and is held to the same standard of starkness and grit as any of Millar’s prose:
”You stink, Elfish. You stink of beer and whiskey and vomit and piss. You are disgusting.” She slid her tongue back into Elfish’s vagina.
Elfish, still fighting her headache and nausea, managed to unzip Aba’s jeans and slide her small hand as far in as it would go. She could not reach Aba’s clitoris but entwined her fingers in her pubic hair. They lay in this manner for some time in the ruined classroom, having sex among the debris with the rain now pouring in through the broken window, turning the mud under Elfish’s naked body into slime.
Aba turned Elfish over, wiped her with her sleeve, and licked her anus. Elfish wriggled.
Aba slid three fingers up her vagina, gripped her clitoris with her other hand and licked Elfish’s anus till Elfish came in a violent spasm that sent fluid spilling out to mix with the sludge on the floor.
The journalistic reportage of the story is broken up with brief interludes titled, “Stage Diving with Elfish.” They’re dreams or recollections of Elfish’s stage-diving history with her ex-friend, Amnesia, and they go a long way toward expanding the range of the novel, hinting that there is more to Elfish than her sex, booze, and rock-and-roll antics:
Now stage divers were mainly, but not exclusively, male, and while it was still exciting to see some burly eighteen-year-old youth hurl himself into space and land on the heads of the people below before disappearing into the mêlée with his legs in the air, it was reasonably commonplace. Elfish and Amnesia being female, and small, stood out, and became well known for their suicidal antics. While Elfish with her hair over her eyes and her metal-patched leather jacket was distinctive, Amnesia was even more so. She had long streaming hair bleached to a dazzling white and was always clad in black so that, flying through the air with a beer can still clutched in her hand and a triumphant curl on her lips, she seemed rather like a Valkyrie warrior plunging down from Valhalla. Or, possibly, a Valkyrie warrior being thrown out of Valhalla for repeated bad behaviour.”
Even with dreamlike vignettes about stage diving, this novel is as hard and fast as any song from the Stiff Little Fingers’ Inflammable Material. In two hundred pages, we come to know each character well, and this is the result of Millar’s careful selection and placement of each detail. His arrangement makes Dreams of Sex and Stage Diving one of the most artful examples of minimalism I’ve seen in quite a while: if any of the stage diving, sex, or literary references went on longer than they do, I doubt this novel would have the same appeal. Though there is impressive literary architecture at work, it never feels like an academic exercise; it’s more like throwing yourself in the mosh-pit or jumping from the stage and landing on the audience—you can just let go.