‘Milky Moo is Going to Blow this Thing Wide Open: a Review of Rhydian Thomas’s “Milk Island”’, by Sam West


That’s the sound of Milky Moo. She’s a genetically perfect cow with an eye infection that’s also a vanguard for truth.

In Rhydian Thomas’s Milk Island, the year is 2023. Earthquakes have left the South Island’s “famous Lord of the Rings landscape as wretched as Mordor.” What’s left is now a privatised dairy gulag/fun fair. Blood sport drippings and industrial run-off seep into the earth while Dave Dobbyn slices up heaven and the air thickens with the stench of unwashed dicks. There are still tour buses to the Sounds (how could there not be) but the windows are shuttered to the worst of the destruction.

It’s not like the good people of New Zealand asked for this. But what the North Island doesn’t know won’t hurt it. Corporate interest, political malaise and a toothless mainstream media (supplemented by a “pay-to-play” blogosphere) are keeping most of the population placated. There are pockets of eco-terrorist resistance too. Someone could even be cooking up some gonzo content that’ll blow the lid off the whole thing. But, first things first, they’re going to need to hose all that semen off Milky Moo. ASAP because it’s beginning to set.

Jesus. There are some truly nightmarish passages in this book. The prose twists in on itself with highly-caffeinated absurdity and venom. At times it almost skids off the page with impressionistic despair. But always manages to anchor itself with one-liners and wry observation (pretty keen for a puff on that “L&P vape” in chapter three to be honest). That said, the novel scares me the most when Rydian tells it straight. This passage in particular formed a postcard-worthy glacier around my heart:
For a time in my early twenties I really did think I was going to do something special with my life. I expected more than what my parents promised me, which was a relatively safe existence with a few well-earned frills. I think my generation all realised we weren’t even going to get those minor victories sometime in the 2010s when something fundamentally changed and never changed back. I still don’t know what exactly it was, but the promised dream survived the reality. Even in our mid-twenties I thought I’d one day buy a house! I used to save money…kind of. I had a career track…kind of. And there were things I liked to do that I hoped would one day be more than hobbies: writing, photography, even music. For a while there, rebelling in art was a warm refuge from the outer world […] and every election day, in lieu of what I loved, I lined up behind the least bruised fruits ¬– usually the Greens ¬¬– and hoped that the opposite of bad was going to be good enough.
Too real! Especially since last time I genuinely felt like “rebelling in art” was “a warm refuge from the outside world” was actually “sometime in the 2010s”. Around the time I met Rhydian Thomas. Or at least I think I did. In 2011 he was living with my mate Brendan at Garret Street – an old Wellington warehouse with a swing in the living room, a rooftop view of Cuba Street, and a pile of dishes that had evolved into a cold war. Garret Street was not the ‘outside world’, especially to a tourist like me. These kiwi punks built their own loft beds, filled their ashtrays to the stinking brim and let bands with names like Teen Hygiene and Useless Children shake their walls on a Thursday night. I’m pretty sure Rhydian shuffled out of his room one afternoon in a dressing gown, rolled a ciggie and said hello. I don’t really remember. I do know I came home from that trip with a burnt CD of Rhydian’s band The Body Lyre. And I played it until it skipped.

In the acknowledgments for Milk Island Rhydian thanks the Body Lyre. He’s says he’s grateful to the “punk and hardcore scenes in Aoteatoa for teaching him how to scream.” He ended up working in politics for years after I (maybe) met him. It’s not like he was just some apathetic alt-rocker. He did more than just “hope that the opposite of bad was going to be good enough”, he got heavily involved. So this book feels like what happens when your band winds down, you quit party politics and your lungs run out of puff. But you still want to fucking scream.

But instead of screaming, the sound that comes out is:

Poor old Milky Moo, pirouetting on her damaged hind-legs and spouting her nonsense. But what actual words can you use to explain things like: John Key making rape jokes with shock jocks while New Zealand’s prison suicide rates reach crisis point; or Peter Jackson dismantling unions while they install a giant Gollum at the airport; or toxic male rage that breaks the bones in your face; or all that well-meaning activism trapped in a hype bubble, rotating around a news cycle in a fluorescent-lit coin laundry at 3am. How about that dead revolutionary whose ideas are now just a conversation you’re enduring while you wait for someone to hand you the spliff?

There’s no logical explanation. Only: WOWOWOWOWOWOWOW.

If you’re an Australian reading Milk Island, you might hear some footsteps too. The boots of a well-paid thug from Wilson Security, marching on a slab of hot concrete in Nauru. Then there’s that indigenous incarceration rate that got us in trouble with the UN. And that price war the supermarket duopoly are waging on farmers. And if you lean in even closer you might even hear the Murray Darling River trickle, trying its fucking hardest to escape to the sea.

All those just greedy, cruel, bad decisions cloaked in nationalistic rhetoric. If you screamed “WOWOWOWOWOWOW” loud enough do you reckon you might be able to hear it above the crowd at a Bledisloe Cup final? I hope so. Because this novel asks a really good question: can “rebelling in art” change anything? Dick Hebdige didn’t think so. Chris Kraus proved the man was a dickhead. But his ideas about punk are still worth considering. He said with things like punk the “the objections [to the dominant culture] are lodged, the contradictions displayed (and, as we shall see, ‘magically resolved’) at the superficial level of appearances: that is the level of signs.” In other words punk just circulates subversive energy in service of the status quo. I’ve quoted Dick before. In pieces of content that no longer exist. They’ve been erased but that’s ok. Because content isn’t designed to last. In some ways it’s just another disposable thing humans have invented because we’ve run out land to plunder. But in other ways content has more value than money. Because content pumps ‘symbolic goods’ into communities. Sometimes these symbolic goods empower communities to make positive changes. Sometimes it teaches them to scream. And if we can just squint through the infected gunk and see the horrible, corrupt truth that Milky sees – maybe we can galvanise. Because what’s the point of screaming into a void? There is no point, so you may as well get involved.

That’s why I think this book often punches hardest when it’s set to ‘hallucinogenic political satire’ mode. There’s a whole section called ‘Cathy Industries’ about a woman who’s clinging to her stake in the prison business (or ‘prisuisness’ as they’re thinking of calling it). She ends up manufacturing a news story and the whole thing plays out like a particularly dark and unhinged episode of The Thick of It, complete with escalating ineptness and rapid-fire insults (for the record “his face looked like a cubist had gone at him with more than just a paintbrush” is my favourite Malcolmism). And, just like with The Thick of It, the true achievement is that you actually grow to kind of love all the awful, conniving characters doing duplicitous things.

I’m pretty sure Amando came out recently and said there’d be no point writing The Thick of It these days. Politics is getting too absurd for satire. Good thing we’ve moved on to some 100% Pure kiwi dystopia.

Sam West is a freelance writer and screenwriter. He used to edit @ThreeThousand now it’s a content graveyard.