All Quiet on the Orient Express
IN PUBLICITY PHOTOS, Magnus Mills looks dangerously placid, a man fully aware of the misery of the daily grind yet wholly unruffled. Mills's grippingly uneventful career before he was published also hints at a (temperamental? cultural?) inability to let loose: During his dozen years driving a bus, he no doubt had to bottle up all kinds of murderous impulses.
And so it seems somehow fitting that his two novels gather darker and darker portents in an ineffably British manner. Quiet, polite, unwilling to make a fuss, Mills makes even his most ominous moments seem a combination of nothing more than good manners and reticence pushed slightly past the point of absurdity--just a spot of bother, really.
Critics frequently invoke Kafka when reading Mills, and the comparison is apt. Mills's nameless narrators stumble into hermetic backwaters governed by social codes everyone else seems to intuit, only to be castigated for infractions they had no way of recognizing. In All Quiet, a less overtly lurid work of comedy than its predecessor, a missed darts match with a neighboring pub bedevils the narrator for a good 50 pages. Cool Britannia, on this evidence, is only a shiny decal pasted over centuries of ruthless provincial dictatorship.
On the other hand, Mills also suggests Robert Frost--only with a ghoulish gleam in his eye. Good fences certainly didn't make good neighbors in The Restraint of Beasts, and here painting a small flotilla of rowboats green (the reasons for which are explained only at the conclusion) takes on an oppressive weight of its own. In fact, much is the same this time around: the vaguely menacing sense of obligation; the unpredictable narrowing of the narrator's horizons; the obscurely terrifying, mysteriously entrepreneurial authority figure named Mr. Parker to whom he becomes beholden. (Like the school-lunch-obsessed Hall brothers in the previous novel, Mr. Parker amasses large collections of oil drums to cryptic, and somewhat dire, ends.)
Here the nameless narrator, lingering briefly around his campground in the Lake District at the end of the season before his planned trip to India, finds himself laboring more and more strenuously for his landlord. Sometimes he gets paid, or begrudged some subminimal reward. At other moments he discovers he has apparently gone afoul of a mysterious communal will. For no apparent reason, the town's only shopkeeper refuses to provide the cookies he wants. As in Mills's first novel, the tension mounts, utterly independent of any rational process of accountability: Is the narrator to be victimized in some strange religious ceremony, or merely forced to be the region's milkman? (Or do these amount to the same thing?)
Either way, he's not getting to India anytime soon; even the elements seem to conspire to stick him in place. Yet though he never leaves town (and probably never will), the novel's bleakly funny resolution manages an optimistic glimmer. Work might be hell, Mills argues, but it's the best hell available--one that, given enough creature comforts, we may even come to enjoy.