Eugen Egner - An anarchic, surreal and zany novel which reads like Kafka rewritten by Monty Python

Eugen Egner, Androids from MilkTrans. by Mike Mitchell, Dedalus, 2001.

A surreal, time-bending odyssey. A freak show owner sends Reuben Hecht-who has been stuck at age 17 for twenty years - and Edwina-who can switch age at will-to a mysterious Colony to recover androids. Stuck in a house that is not his home, Ruben is beaten by his mother for procrastinating on his homework for the Holy German Paintbrush Distance Learning Academy; his father has taken to his bed to hatch a dwarf. He goes to a concert by the rock group, The Flesh-eating Fetish Bitches, and decides to run away, pursued by the parish priest who wants to put him in a children's home, since he will never come of age.

Having mysteriously remained 17 years old for two decades, the dopey Rueben Hecht gives new meaning to the term psychosocial moratorium and that's just the beginning of his problems in Eugen Egner's comic, insanity-riddled Androids from Milk, translated from the German by Mike Mitchell. Rueben's parents have apparently committed suicide, his doctor wants to put him in a kids' home and Rueben and his age-shifting sidekick, Edwina, must embark on an "android-procurement" mission that will uncover dark and surprising family secrets. - Publishers Weekly

Androids from Milk was not recommended to me, nor had I even heard of it or its author Eugen Egner. This was simply a case of going into a shop, checking out the back cover, and getting on with reading it. In retrospect I should have been sharper, and noticed that the obligatory "Funniest thing I've ever read etc etc" comments by literary critics were entirely absent. Perhaps they will put my review on the back of future pressings, or then again, maybe they won't !
The storyline in Androids from Milk is undoubtedly odd. However, this is not necessarily a bad thing, take examples such as Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett, who manage to weave intricate stories full of puns and in-jokes to make the reader chortle away. In fact, in the hands of a better writer, there is plenty of good material for something of this sort. Our main character has been seventeen for twenty years, one of his travelling partners is a woman who can change herself to any age that she likes, his father has become addicted to drinking UHT milk and at one stage decides to retire to his bedroom for several years to give birth to a dwarf. There is the reoccuring appearance of the rock band "Flesh Eating Fetish Bit***s" and a transit van of blondes who take great pleasure in imitating them to the consternation of our hero, a woman with leopard skin style birthmarks with an amazing ability to power lightbulbs, and a type of grass which (when smoked) turns males into females.
I am not saying that any of the above are good sensible issues on which to build a novel, but they do give a writer plenty of space in which to create something of a well structured, but surreal nature. However, here Egner fails comprehensively as he, rather self-satisfyingly dawdles in large amounts of silliness, going away from the plot into rather meaningless wordgames or side issues. The result of this is to lose any degree of momentum built up in the storyline, and also to lose the interest of the reader. The book is really quite short, but I found that it still took a lot of self discipline to complete it.
However, back to the storyline. Our "hero" who is a student of the Holy German Long Distance Paintbrush academy (or suchlike) goes to a concert of the Flesh Eating Fetish Bit***s, at which he encounters a doctor and a priest who tell him that his parents have died, so it is their job to put him in a childrens home. Luckily, a group of bikers batter the priest and doctor so hard that their both their names and identities have to change (Are you still following ??). Our hero then continues his adventures, constantly followed by the pair. Along the way he meets the Flesh Eating Fetish Bit***s in person, travels to the Colony, is hired by the owner of a Freak Show, smokes himself into a woman (Are you still with me ??)and finds out how he wants to spend his future.
All of this conducted in a world which is dominated by an unlikely, but highly physical, warfare between the Bus Drivers and the Long Distance Lorry Drivers.
The title of the novel comes from the discovery by the Freak Show owner that Androids have been created from UHT milk in the Colony, and which causes him to send our hero on a mission to bring one back, our hero little realising that he is far more closely involved in the history of these beings than he realises.
The erratic, unpredictable and ludicrous nature of this novel will most probably be reflected in this review. How can you properly review a novel which has a central theme of regular competitions on buses to work out which driver is driving ? (Yes, the others are just pretending !) I suspect that translation may be partially to blame, as the novel was originally written in German, and I do suspect that it would be difficult to translate this sort of genre. However, there is a very fine line between the entertainingly surreal and the self-indulgently silly, and I am afraid that Androids from Milk spends far too much time in the second of these sections. Added to the fairly singular inability of the author to tie up many of the strands of storyline this becomes a very unsatisfying and disappointing read.
During one of the five or six prologues (yes, the silliness starts early!) Egner claims to have written the book in two hours. Frankly, I would not be totally surprised if this claim is true, and I just wish that he had spent slightly longer as then he might have produced something worth reading !

The bus-stop, a regular bus-station-with-soup-kitchen-attached, was a reasonable distance from the family home. A quiet and inconspicuous gang of bikers clad in black leathers were standing beside the bus-shelter. The women among them were as beautiful as Snow White, and as pale. When Reuben walked past in his pointed shoes they raised their crash-helmets politely. Immediately opposite, its doors wide open, the number 48 with its beer-cellar was waiting. At that moment the bikers' leader came clattering up the stairs, accompanied by three bus-drivers.
'Right,' she squealed in a jolly, girlish voice, 'one for the road with you lot and then it's off to the concert.'
So they all turned on their heels and went back down to the beer-cellar. The whole bus wobbled while they were drinking their beer. Reuben was pleased to be in such an interesting place instead of sitting at home with his problem parents, spending the evening drawing. It was the best thing that could happen to a seventeen-year-old, no more and no less.
But every silver lining has to have a cloud. As Reuben was standing there enjoying himself, he heard Dr Rossman's iron snow-shovel scraping along the bus-station tarmac. The sound was getting nearer. Suddenly Rossman came round the corner of the bus-shelter.
'Hands up,' he shouted, when he discovered Reuben. A moment later his bosom friend, Prümers the parish priest, appeared from the same direction.
'Reuben Hecht!' screamed Prümers. 'Is this the company you keep? Shame on you to bring such disgrace on your poor, poor parents!'
'Even in death they are not spared,' added Rossman.
'Come and repent,' cried Prümers.
The medical officer of health was getting worked up. 'Just look what you've done!' he exclaimed.
'But I haven't done anything at all,' protested Reuben, flabbergasted. 'I've no idea what you're on about. My parents know I'm going to the concert this evening.'
'To a concert!' squawked Prümers. 'To worship the devil, you mean! And with your parents laid out at home, cold and dead!'
'Cold and dead!' repeated Rossman, at which Prümers yowled, 'Amen, amen, amen.'
Reuben was beginning to feel ill. His irritable bowel syndrome had been aroused and the point fell off one of his shoes. What on earth were these two lunatics talking about?
By now Rossman was foaming at the mouth. 'And you weren't at home to lend those to whom you owe everything — I repeat: everything — your aid in their hour of need! Instead you're hanging around the bus-station!'
'That can cost you your eternal bliss, no problem!' exulted the priest. 'You didn't honour your father and mother, you shit! You should be sold off to a laboratory where they do animal experiments.'
'He has to be sent to the children's home, as it is,' Dr Rossman declared, referring to Reuben's inability ever to come of age.
'What do you mean?' Reuben asked. 'What is going on? What are you trying to tell me, for God's sake?'
''For God's sake'! Just listen to the sinner!' Prümers expostulated. He hit Reuben in the face, but his aim was poor.
'Oh, come on now,' said one of the leather-clad bikers. The others huddled closer together apprehensively. Reuben regretted he had no firearm with him.
'You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in your mouth!' hissed Prümers. 'Especially not you of all people!'
'You want to know what's going on, do you?' Rossman bawled at the boy. 'I'll tell you what's going on. After all, I am the doctor who signed the death certificates. Your father strung himself up and your mother was so fed up with the whole business, she just dropped down dead.'
Reuben went pale with shock. 'It must have all happened very quickly,' he said. 'I've only been away for fifteen minutes at the most . . .'