Top critical review
4 people found this helpful
Magnus Mills by numbers
on 3 March 2003
Readers happily familiar with Magnus Mills’ output to date will find The Scheme for Full Employment a joy for it’s more of the same – more sparse landscapes, more spare dialogue and more characters rounded only just enough to permit all manner of allegorical possibilities. Fans of Magnus Mills’ output, however, may be slightly disappointed for exactly the same reasons – it’s very similar to what we’ve grown to love, but we’re used to it now, can maybe even predict some of the twists, and may find that The Scheme for Full Employment doesn’t add anything particularly new.
The narrator—unnamed, as ever—is one cog in the machine that makes up the eponymous Scheme, driving a Univan from one depot to another delivering an unspecified product for an unspecified purpose and an unspecified wage. The scene is beautifully Mills-ian, unquestioning men at work in the company of other unquestioning men, never dwelling long enough with each other for characters to develop above a single identifiable trait; George delivers cakes as a sideline, Jonathan is in his first week, Arthur is the grumpy guardian of keys. The narrator—again typically—is also slightly marginalized: he feels uncomfortable in the communal canteen and in the early stages of the book is taken off of his regular run to make solitary timing journeys to Eden Lacey depot, prior to possible expansion of the scheme. Thus, when there is something of an uprising in his home depot (a clash of ethics between early swervers and flat-dayers) he misses it and, as ever, ‘plot’ is something that happens elsewhere.
This technique may be unique to Mills but its effects have been tried and tested in all his novels to date. Despite (or possibly because of) our narrator’s obedient reluctance to question or embellish, our imaginations run riot, trying to fill in so many gaps that we create a fiction all of our own. Then, when Mills casually drops in answers to some of our questions, we can find ourselves bowled over by nothing more than effortless simplicity. Just like we can never be sure who are the Hall Brothers in The Restraint of Beasts or why does Bryan Webb wear a cardboard crown in All Quiet on the Orient Express, it’s a long time before we figure out exactly what The Scheme is all about. Or, at least, that’s the idea.
And this is my main criticism of The Scheme for Full Employment: I never considered Mills to be running a mile ahead of me this time out; it’s all a bit obvious, and I guessed the twists. None of the characters are as bafflingly enigmatic as Michael Painter in Three to See The King, or Hodge in All Quiet, for example. None of the settings are as instantly eerie as any of the pubs in Mills’ first two novels and the parable at the heart of the story is not so provocatively told as it is in his third. What we get is almost a Mills novel by numbers: all the ingredients are there but some of the magic and mystery has evaporated, mainly through over exposure. This is still a book well worth reading; you’ll fly through it and enjoy every page, but though the breath of air Mills blows through the stuffy contemporary literature scene is not yet stale, neither is it as icy-fresh as it once was.