by Emily Jane Young
The thing about book launches is if you’ve been to one reading, or seen one in a movie, you’ve sort of seen them all. Such is not the case when you take into account the weirdness happening in Douglas W. Milliken’s brain. I had been to one of Milliken’s launch parties before, so when I arrived at SPACE Gallery on a recent November evening for the launch of Cream River, Milliken’s new book of short stories, I was a little surprised to see a classic setup of chairs all facing a stage, sporadic potted ferns notwithstanding. I was not to be disappointed: rather than a proper reading, I would be soon be entertained by the podcast npilar, hosted by artists Pilar Nadal and Anne Buckwalter, with Milliken as interviewee, a live taping peppered with Aleric Nez as a guitar in a wig performing from Whiskey Dick, the musical companion to Cream River by Milliken’s alter-ego Blind Pelican, and seemingly impromptu readings from the book by actors Michael Dix Thomas and Mariah Bergeron. Paired with a Genny Cream Jelly — a small and fairly solid cocktail featuring something called “milk jam” dreamed up by Milliken and realized by Genevieve Johnson, a food artist (and Milliken’s girlfriend) — we were all in for an awkward and stimulating situation. As the crowd of people grew from a small handful to several buckets-full, I took in the rest of the surroundings bit by bit.
One wall featured the leering mug of actor Michael Dix Thomas, who had suited up for the occasion, projected on the wall. I assumed at first that this was a few looped minutes, as he didn’t move much, but Milliken doesn’t do things half-assed. It became apparent later in the evening, when Thomas read us a selection of the book and reacted to the audience in what could only be real-time, that he was truly sitting in a darkened room somewhere states way, staring uncomfortably at a camera for a couple hours.
There was one other projection in the room, a collection of very short films created by Derek Kimball, which featured close-ups of faces in what felt like morning light. Ambient noise played over the images like an empty TV station turned up, but in a pleasant way, made the room hum, made it clear that these people were ecstatic, despite any missteps that had caused every one of them to have trails of milk running down their bodies, a literal nod to the book’s title. It is mainly a collection of mouths: one is all teeth, one has the O-mouth of a howler monkey. Two are kissing each other. This rapturous, milk-dribble imagery holds a mirror to Milliken’s second story in Cream River, “Piemonte. January.”, in which three young men ravage a liter of milk “as if this were the best the world would ever offer to touch their needful lips.” 1
When I read Doug’s collection, Cream River, I can’t help but read it as a writer and a reader, but also as a woman and — full disclosure — as a friend of the author, perspectives that are sometimes divergent while necessarily simultaneous. As a reader I luxuriate in the phrasing and the descriptions, the new perspectives. As a writer I can’t help but turn a critical eye to the construction of each piece and of the book as a whole. But the real struggle for me, perspective-wise, is that between woman and friend, and like any piece of writing worth its salt, this has forced me to give the book a good hard think.
Here’s my beef: This book is so heavily masculine, so male-centric, and since it is written by a man, my natural conclusion is that he knows nothing about and cares little for women. The female characters in the book don’t represent women, rather they are there to serve the male perspective, and the primary emotions they present are shame, defeat, and incomprehension. If I were to read this collection casually, and independent from any knowledge of the author, it would be easy to determine that he was a man’s man who doesn’t interact with or think about women other than as objects. I’ll admit I almost did this anyway, despite the intriguingly complex visual and sensorial information presented at the book launch. But the fact is that not only is Milliken an excellent, well-rounded person and friend, he knows how to write, he knows how to convey his story to his audience. And if the sort of people that Milliken chooses to surround himself with are any indication of who his audience is, then I am his audience. His book launch was filled with women — on the stage, in the audience, and participating in presenting Cream River to the world. Knowing all this, I had to dig deeper to find out why his stories still made me uncomfortable.
There are two female characters that stand out in these stories. Little is known about the recurring character, Lisa, other than what her nipples look like and that she rarely wears a shirt. The story whose title refers to her does not do so by name — it’s called “David’s Wife, in the Country”. In the story, Lisa is pitiable (“poor Lisa”2) and speechless when it is pointed out that she isn’t wearing a shirt, though presumably it was her own choice to remove it. She ends up cheating on her husband, and the reason provided is that he wasn’t there and so the interloper is “having a good go of it”.3 Lisa is not perceived as being responsible for her actions: “didn’t David know he couldn’t leave his wife alone like this?”4 Not “Lisa,” because this is not a Lisa-specific trait, but “his wife,” because this is how fickle wives are.
However, in “Pink & Sweet”, the other story in which Lisa appears, it is actually the narrator, and not the author, who prevents Lisa from fully participating in the scene. Not only does he distance himself from her by focusing on her breasts instead of what he knows of her as a person, but he does not tell her why he has decided not to run away to New Mexico with their group of friends. His explanation — “You spend your whole life waiting for something. Then it comes and you think, That’s it? Or maybe: Okay, what next? No amount of desert will ever make that stop.”5 — remains in his own head. And he notes that, upon hearing the news that he won’t be joining him, Lisa doesn’t say a word. But neither does he.
His descriptions of these women are beautiful:
Her pretty red-haired head bobbed near my elbow as her shoes clopped along beside mine. I guess I’m tall, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t short. She was too far away for me to smell. But I could guess… She blew smoke like she was kissing it.6
There are pretty much zero descriptions of the men—the Americans in “Piemonte” are described as having beards towards the end of the piece, but this is really more a description of the path of the milk than it is of the men themselves.
In “Color Wheel”, the other most fully realized female character, Cynthia, is first described as a “happy little animal,” but then and for once the narrator acknowledges that, “she wasn’t like an animal at all: that’s just my way to create a distance between us”7. When he describes Cynthia’s sweater, it isn’t described as a piece of clothing owned by a human and used for warmth and decoration (which is how I think of my sweaters) but in terms of something that is removed from her body by men’s hands. Meanwhile, “Cynthia was talking about something, but I don’t know what—I wasn’t listening.”8
This is where the narrator has an almost dawning—not only does he admit that he purposely distances himself from the woman in the story, who is his ex, but he admits to her that he was wrong about his presumptions about her and essentially wrong about how the world works, and that when they broke up he was afraid to be wrong, so that he determined she was wrong. It’s a very self-aware admission for anyone, but then it turns again, at the last line, when Cynthia makes an arguably true statement, “not everything has to be permanent,” and the narrator thinks “I didn’t have the heart to tell her she was wrong.”9
The overt egocentricity of the narrator (who I am treating as the same narrator in several of the stories, as the voice seems fluid) cannot be a mistake. Milliken has written a despicable character with an accuracy that is to be congratulated, though with a subtlety that may be missed by less discerning readers.
In the end, the reason his stories made me uncomfortable is obvious: that is what Milliken wants. In the npilar interview, he blushed with the joy of embarrassment through questions about the name Whiskey Dick, where Milliken was forced to explain a previous misunderstanding about the meaning of the term. Buckwalter asked him why he was so gross, noting that some of the stories made her uncomfortable. Milliken’s response to both of these was surprise, the admission that what others find to be gross he often finds beautiful, and that he strives to write about uncomfortable things. Well done, Mr. Milliken.
Douglas W. Milliken’s Cream River/Whiskey Dick, with a foreword by singer-songwriter Ben Trickey, can be ordered through Publication Studio/Downeaster Editions.