The Restraint of Beasts
It's tempting to forgo reviewing this first novel by British newcomer Magnus Mills and focus instead on the glowing blurb by Thomas Pynchon, a rare commodity that the publisher has splashed across the entire back cover and, as if nervous that the postmodern maestro's praise might be missed, reprised on the front cover with a carefully placed sticker. Add to the news flash (Pynchon blurbs new book!) that this darkly acerbic debut by a London bus driver was short-listed for this year's Booker Prize--it lost to a new novel by old favorite Ian McEwan that has yet to hit these shores--and the message is doubly clear: The Restraint of Beasts is the real thing. Nevertheless, and at the risk of contradicting both the prize-giving establishment and the blurb industry, there are a few things your humble reviewer will attempt to add to this double-barreled blast of hype.
First off, readers should be aware that--endorsement aside--this book ain't Pynchon. Mills employs an inventive comedic stance, yes, but he does so in a stark prose style that is closer to the understated realism of Raymond Carver than the manic lexiphanicism of T.P.: "As Mr. McCrindle had demonstrated by his phone call, the main concern of farmers was that their fences should be tight. Without this the restraint of beasts was impossible. We were rushing back to deal with Mr. McCrindle's fence because it had gone slack, and for that reason only." At the beginning of the novel, especially, this flatness leads to passages that flirt with the boundary of boring and bad: "Mr. McCrindle had a sloping field. A sloping field! As if a farmer didn't have enough to worry about. It was the curse of his life: always had been... Worst of all the bottom part of the field was so steep it was no use to him because his cows wouldn't go down there. And if they did they wouldn't come back!" The Restraint of Beasts, in short, shows a restraint in style that readers may interpret as ineffectual.
Once Mills lets loose his plot, however, matters improve considerably. The story's unnamed narrator is a newly appointed foreman in a Scottish fence-building company whose specialty, "high-tensile" fencing, promises farmers greater control over their livestock. Since the foreman is English, and Tam and Richie, the two workers in his gang, are Scottish, a prominent theme in the novel is the high tension between the two cultures. The action becomes cinematic and lurid (a là Eating Raoul) when the trio starts accidentally killing off the farmers who've contracted with them. In Mills's deadpan scheme, the only problem these deaths cause for our three stooges is whether to bury the bodies under a "hanging post" or a "slamming post."
This dry take on the social construct we call work is Mills's greatest strength. In simple strokes reminiscent of George Orwell's Animal Farm, he shows how the drudgery of work fences us in, and how its quest for "efficiency"--a key word for our narrator's overseer, Donald--is a thinly veiled excuse for fascism. "Donald sometimes employed a very unfortunate turn of phrase," Mills writes. "He was forever talking about 'rounding us up' and 'shipping us off' as though we were being transported to some sort of penal colony or corrective camp, rather than merely going to undertake a commercial contract." It's no surprise when the company adds high-voltage electric fencing to its repertoire--"the final solution to the problem of the restraint of beasts"--and that as a result the useless weight within the company starts dropping dead as well. (Women don't exist in this world-as-factory, a sexism Mills obliquely addresses when a hometown lass comes to visit the Kafkaesque site of our trio's final fencing operation and is promptly disappeared.)
Along with his fabulous approach, Mills has a keen visual sense of humor, often trained on the hapless Tam. Here, for example, is his tattoo: "It consisted of a diagonal flag and a scroll bearing the words 'I'm a Scot.' However, the tattooist hadn't really left himself enough room, so the words actually read 'I mascot.'" Later, Tam makes an impromptu raincoat out of an empty fertilizer sack: "He'd cut holes for his arms and head, while his legs protruded out of the open end. He had made the neck hole as small as possible to prevent water getting in, and then forced his head through without bothering to untrap his hair, so that it resembled a medieval helmet." Richie doesn't fare much better: He is forever reading a copy of "An Early Bath for Thompson by A.D. Young," though he can't tell anyone what it's about, because "I haven't finished it yet." In the end it's hard to tell whether Tam and Richie (whose overriding instinct seems to be to do as little work and as much pub-crawling as possible) or their sadistic employers are the true beasts of this sardonic tale.