It's difficult enough as it is for those of us who are reasonably well-adjusted to handle the day-to-day grind of existence, let alone any of the nastier surprises that members of your own species might decide to chuck at you. It makes you wonder how anybody not firing on all their cylinders is able to cope. Oh sure, there are those who have chosen to opt out of the game in one way or another, usually through either drugs or alcohol, or a combination of both. However I'm talking about the ones who wander through life minus some of the mental and emotional armour most of us employ to protect ourselves.
In his most recent book, Ruby And The Stone Age Diet published by Soft Skull Press and distributed by Publishers Group Canada, Scottish born author Martin Millar takes us into the lives of those who live on the fringes of society. The unnamed narrator of the book shares living space with his friend Ruby, who, no matter the weather, wears the same lilac cotton dress and a pair of sunglasses day in and day out and goes barefoot. While Ruby sits at home, or occasionally goes over to visit her inappropriate and abusive boy friend, our protagonist works a succession of temporary, mindless, unskilled labour positions in order to augment their unemployment insurance.
However, there are weeks when he's unable to obtain employment, and both of them forget to file their claims for the "dole" so they are often without any money. Even when he is able to earn money, Ruby insists that it be spent on things far more important than food and shelter – like an amazing new style of can opener and a crate of tinned beans. While they do spend what our narrator describes as "probably the most fun he has had in a year" opening the cans of beans, spreading them all over the apartment and frisbeeing the lids down the hall, at the end they still haven't eaten and they've spent all their money. Aside from not eating very much, they aren't able to pay rent very often, let alone utility bills, which means they are forced to move repeatedly from one illegal squat to another.
Aside from his financial straits, our narrator is also suffering from a broken heart as he and his girlfriend Cis break up near the beginning of the book. He spends a great deal of time envisioning scenarios in which he accidentally on purpose runs into her. Of course he also has an incredibly active imagination which leads him to believe he occasionally travels in space ships with aliens, and to create gods and goddesses for the everyday demands of his life. For instance there is Helena, the goddess of electric guitar players and Ascanazl, an ancient and powerful Inca spirit who looks after lonely people. Unfortunately his fantasy life also prevents him from being able to hold down a full time job, or even keep his temporary ones for any length of time. For he is always being distracted away from the world or being forced to miss work because of the danger of being eaten by snow wolves.
While he refers to Ruby as his best friend, someone wonderfully supportive, Ruby is not what anybody would call healthy. She obviously suffers from some sort of eating disorder as she keeps coming up with new reasons for throwing all the food in their house out. At one point she insists they only follow the "Stone Age Diet" of the book's title, which means they can "only eat the sort of healthy things our ancestor would have eaten". As she hardly ever leaves the house, it's up to her to think up ways for them to make more money. One of her ideas is to write pornographic fiction. So she sends the narrator out on a series of "dates" by answering ads in sex trade magazines from people looking for S&M partners and has him recount the details of his encounters so she can write them out. Unfortunately it all comes to naught as she loses the stories on the bus.
Our narrator only wants to please, and is so grateful to Ruby for being his friend that he goes along with whatever she suggests. After all she's much smarter than he is and has his best interests at heart. Wasn't she the one who told him that the cactus Cis bought for him just before dumping him was actually an Aphrodite Cactus? Which upon flowering will seal the love of the one who gave it with the one who received it? So he, instead of moving on from the broken relationship, waits for the cactus to bloom, and dreams of Cis coming back to him. He's always there when Ruby needs him. He's somebody for her to control and to feel superior to. At one point he comments about how he and Ruby are both expert self-pityists, and how they regard it as a good positive emotion, not exactly the healthiest basis for a friendship.
Ruby And The Stone Age Diet meanders around inside the head of the narrator as he bounces from thought to thought without any direction. He is an innocent in a world that is far too confusing and he hides from it as much as he can. Unfortunately innocents also become victims as there are always those willing to take advantage of them. Occasionally you want to reach into the pages of the book and shake him by the shoulders and tell him to wake up, but most of the time he only makes you a little sad. When Ruby disappears at the end of the book he finds a full-time job working as a librarian. Without Ruby to support him he has to stop squatting and starts renting an apartment. He says the last without any irony, as if stability and security are signs of failure, as if it's a surrender.
While there are genuinely funny moments throughout the book, the werewolf tale that Ruby is writing and that she reads from is hysterical, but also permeated by an aura of sadness that you can't escape. For all its main character's attempts at escapism, there's something undeniably real in Millar's descriptions of contemporary life. His characters gradually come alive over the course of the book, until by the end we know them all too well. We see in them elements of those we've known and various bits and pieces of ourselves. The mirror Millar holds up for us to look into may be a bit like those in a fun house distorting reality, but in the end we can't help realize the image we see in it is true whether we like it or not.