The publication in 1998 of his debut novel, The Restraint of Beasts, served to establish Magnus Mills as a genuinely new voice in modern English fiction. It remains an enduringly valid introduction to his work: the repetitive daily endeavours of a working routine, forensically described in a heavily plain style that casts a disquieting, illusory veil over the entire narrative. It is a bold approach, simplistic to the point of being childlike, without the various plot dynamics that a reader might expect. Six novels later, it would seem that one either 'buys in' to the world of Magnus Mills or one does not. October 2010 sees the release of Mills' seventh novel, Screwtop Thompson, which originates from a short story published in one of his collections, Once in a Blue Moon, and also in a national newspaper. Before his breakthrough, Mills penned a brief column for The Independent examining the quirks of his day job driving London buses. (The series was abruptly curtailed by the arrival of a new column from Helen Fielding: Bridget Jones's Diary.)
Mills' background in blue-collar work and his career as a London bus driver provided a convenient angle for the media when The Restraint of Beasts received nominations for both Booker and Whitbread prizes (winning neither, although it did win the McKitterick). But there is a deeper significance: the type of blue-collar work undertaken by Mills in the past not only lies at the heart of his work, but is also a key factor in his ability to produce it:
"When The Restraint of Beasts was published I packed in driving buses. I thought I was going to live the life of a writer, sitting in pubs drinking Guinness. But I like having a day job, too. I can only write, it turns out, when I have no apparent spare time." (1)
At the time of writing, Mills has returned to the life of a London bus driver. It is, however, one of his former occupations--the construction of high-tensile fencing--that provides the foundation for that extraordinary first novel, The Restraint of Beasts. It is easy to see why the novel raised eyebrows. There was (and still is) very little on the shelves to compare with Mills, certainly amongst modern-day, English-language writers. Novelists such as Paul Auster and Mick Jackson should spring to mind, but they do not adhere to the same levels of stylistic self-discipline. Whilst more extravagant in its use of language (which is the Irish tendency), Flann O'Brien's The Third Policeman displays tangible similarities in terms of plot and narration. The fact remains, however, that Mills' dialogue-driven stories take the idea of concision to levels rarely seen in 'serious' literature.
The writing in The Restraint of Beasts is typically frugal, with an underlying framework now well-known to followers of Mills: a premise is set, a fundamental storyline begins, and an inward-facing spiral of repetition takes hold as the characters embark on a daily schedule. In time, shards of information and messages spin off, typically the portents of some impending disintegration. (Mills' isolated worlds tend ultimately to close in on themselves or implode entirely.)
Tam, Richie and their narrator foreman find themselves thrown together as a team of high-tensile fencing constructors. The two young labourers are disgusted at having to travel south from Scotland to England, holed up in a cramped caravan, all three men increasingly at loggerheads with their shadowy paymasters. As the situation appears ever more unstable, their only consolation is a nightly visit to the public house.
Aside from its gently surreal undertones, the novel paints an accurate picture of working life for many a young single man. Days are merely to be ground out, solace provided by the public house and dalliances with women. As ever with Mills, the older narrator has adopted a default passivity. This may connect with Alan Sillitoe's views on the lives of working men, particularly as expressed by Arthur Seaton and company in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, but Tam and Richie lack the pride and purpose thought fundamental to youth by Sillitoe. Here the times feel less optimistic than in Seaton's post-war Britain.
The Restraint of Beasts provides a checklist for Mills' future work: the unnamed narrator, the lack of back-story and physical description, the repetitive blue-collar labour, scant explanation for bizarre events, the absence of direct consequences, and the sparse, unforgiving environments in which Mills' characters are usually made to operate. All of these are also present and correct in his next novel, All Quiet on the Orient Express (brilliantly titled, like its predecessor), described by Mills himself thus:
"A man accidentally spills a tin of paint and thereby condemns himself to death. (2)"
The paint in question is green and belongs to Tommy Parker, Lake District campsite proprietor, small-time entrepreneur and man of locally-renowned ill-temper. It is fast approaching the end of the season: the tourists have gone and the area is reverting to local rule. A single camper (the tale's narrator) remains on site, albeit with imminent plans to move on and travel the world. But this consistently fails to happen as, exposed to Parker, he finds himself coerced into an ill-defined period of chores, handiwork and general drudgery. Day by day he is assimilated into an oppressive, moneyless society--and the pub darts team.
From the first edition's original cover (evocative of Enid Blyton and Ladybird books for children) to the way in which Mills takes his debut's stylistic feel and kicks it even further into minimalism and a sense of foreboding, All Quiet on the Orient Express is Mills' most successful work. Many of the barbs and the compliments aimed his way ('Kafkaesque,' 'deceptively simple,' 'shades of Beckett,' 'nothing ever happens,' 'boring') originate here, largely because Mills had the confidence to allow his natural method free reign. In the novel's spaces there is a grounding, Sillitonian realism: tourist-driven towns and villages can and do acquire a sinister air for the out-of-season visitor, whilst the particulars of manual labour are again deftly described. (Unsurprisingly, Mills worked on a farm campsite in the Lake District as a youth.) As in The Restraint of Beasts, any surrealist tendencies on display are tethered to familiar, comfortably English bucolic surroundings.
Mills would abandon this cosy setting for Three to See the King. This third novel is a rumination on contentment, relationships, and the notion of self-sufficiency versus collaborative effort. It sees Mills finally make the jump into purely allegorical story-telling and also represents his first direct deployment of political and religious themes (a direction to be further developed in subsequent novels).
The narrator lives happily in a house made of tin, located in a windy, desert-like environment. Miles across the dunes, however, the charismatic Michael Hawkins has corralled his followers into a canyon to construct a brave new world. The narrator has neighbours, prone to visit on occasion, tolerated well enough, but less so as they begin to vouchsafe pro-Hawkins views. Then one day a woman arrives and irreparably changes the dynamic. Mary Petrie, wittingly or otherwise, prompts a figurative wrestling match between herself, the narrator, his neighbours, and their respective aspirations. Petrie is a noteworthy feature of Three to See the King: a prominent female character. Women in the novels of Magnus Mills, although strong, are generally peripheral beings and often unseen altogether. Female characters who do achieve a degree of visibility, it must be said, tend to be portrayed (superficially, at least) as a bane or an unwanted challenge in the narrator's life. Mary Petrie can easily be regarded as a disruptive nuisance, but alternatively she could be seen as a saviour, attempting to drag the narrator out of his cosy inertia for his own good.
The book is a slight departure in another sense: the touches of black comedy seen in the previous novels are turned here into scenes approaching outright farce, particularly when the narrator finally takes the plunge and decides, half-heartedly, to join in with Michael Hawkins' bright, fresh (and rapidly faltering) society. From this point on the sprit of Monty Python and their biblical satire is never far away, but underneath it all Mills holds true to his initial themes. Three to See the King, written at a time when Mills had left the buses and declined to take a regular day job, appears in a number of ways to buck the system. The narrative repetition is gentler, and overall the novel has an atmosphere of humanity not really evident in his other works.
Ending the hiatus in his working life, Mills then spent a period of time driving vans. From this comes the basis for his fourth novel, The Scheme for Full Employment--and if the 'approved formula' had been tweaked elsewhere, then it is rigidly adhered to here, in what is unquestionably textbook Magnus Mills. Essentially a satire on workplace bureaucracy and union power, the novel approaches familiar Millsian themes with a more satirical eye than his previous works. The Scheme is a heavily institutionalised (yet, in the opinion of the narrator, nigh-on idyllic) world of self-perpetuating employment for all. UniVans spend their existence being driven around a peaceful countryside to a variety of depots, transporting parts with which to repair UniVans when they break down or wear out. The scheme's workforce, whilst superficially benign enough, is divided into two camps— 'flat dayers' and 'early swervers'—those fully committed to the ideals of the Scheme and, conversely, those eager to make the best of what they view as a mundane occupation. The schism comes to a head when delegates from both sides vainly attempt to thrash out their differences over beer and sandwiches.
The Scheme for Full Employment is arguably Mills' most lovingly rendered account of the finer points of working life. From the documents and dockets to the UniVans themselves, complete with their own van-spotting community, the depots, the furtive cake deliveries, the quirks of the routes involved (routes and directions are a Mills speciality), and even the portentous beer and sandwiches, the words convey a warmth for the organisation and characters that they describe, and call to mind a bygone age of mass industrial labour and union power, well documented in British films of the post-war, 'new-wave' era. Clearly drawn to the idea of national institutions, Mills paints the Scheme as a cumbersome, rather wasteful monster, yet at the same time an organisation that commands special respect and a kind of love from both the general public and employees alike. (His sixth novel, The Maintenance of Headway, is therefore in many respects a companion piece, this time grounded firmly in reality: a thinly anonymised representation of the London bus service.)
Next, though, comes a flight into fantasy, and also a return to allegory and fable, in Mills' fifth novel, Explorers of the New Century. Two expeditions have set out in competition with one another to be the first to reach the Agreed Furthest Point. Ostensibly, the narrative faithfully mimics a sort of Boys' Own adventure (the first edition cover pictorially evokes this genre) with the rival teams of Johns and Tostig ploughing individual paths through a bleak and dangerous hinterland of snow and ice, harrying their packs of mules, each leader largely unaware of the other's progress. The objectives appear straightforward—glory and fame for the winning team-but it gradually becomes apparent that the mission has a far more sinister purpose.
Explorers of the New Century differs from any other Mills novel by featuring a seismic plot twist at roughly the half-way point. This casts an entirely new light on proceedings, demanding that the reader re-appraise a great deal of what has gone before. Seemingly bland happenings acquire an ethical edge in retrospect, and political themes are brought into play. It is a cleverly executed move-the twist succeeds in being a complete surprise-yet it is undoubtedly a risky one, with Mills opting to wager the credibility of his novel on the success of this one set-piece. It is indicative of Mills' style that the incident (not exactly a gun fight or high-speed car chase) comes across as shocking. It does work, however, and if a Magnus Mills novel could ever be described as overtly political, then this is probably it. Once over the hump we see typical traits resurface, as the expeditions begin to crumble amidst black humour and scenes of valiant, explorer-like stoicism.
The most surprising thing about Mills' sixth novel, The Maintenance of Headway, is that it took him so long to get around to writing it. A novel dissecting the capital's transport system and those who work within it seemed inevitable. Published in 2009, the book represented a return for Mills following a four year absence, and extended his published writing career to over ten years. Defying any search for allegorical meaning, The Maintenance of Headway is simply a realistic account of working on the buses, with all the situations and characters that this entails. In this respect it could be viewed as a 'real life' version of a typical Mills novel, showing us how the absurdities and characteristics of his fictions are every bit as prevalent in the everyday world. One thing is certain: after reading it, the act of running for a bus will never be the same again. Equally memorable is a sequence in which our narrator, infected by the words of an ever-present road safety slogan, begins to invent pop lyrics, a Mills moment to rank alongside any other.
It is probably this novel that best lives up to the oft-used 'deceptively simple' tag. Devoid of surrealism, plot twists and dark foreboding, the story's message fittingly relates to everyday routine: the impenetrable 'world within a world' that so many of us inhabit on a daily basis, buried in our systems, inured to the way we see outsiders and how they see us.--Neil Jackson
(1) Taken from a short interview in The Guardian, 2009. (2) Taken from an interview in the Barcelona Review, 1999.