on 13 December 2009
Magnus Mills pretty much sticks to one topic, and THE MAINTENANCE OF HEADWAY is a strong example: groups of low-status working men trying (against the ordinary resistance of everyday life) to get their work done. It doesn't sound all that promising as a subject for fiction, but Mills uses it to show just how weird everyday working life really is. He is not a magical realist in the supernatural sense. He is a magical realist in making familiar routines both spooky and comic. Ever since THE RESTRAINT OF BEASTS (his first novel, 1998) I have read everything Mills writes, and remain amazed. One of a kind.
This a novella rather than a novel (infact it could be described as an extended short story). It's an entertaining read but, as has been pointed out by others, lacks the sinister undertones (and the sense that something rather bad might happen at any moment) that characterise Mills' work. His deadpan, sardonic humour is as strong as ever and I really enjoyed the closing pages! Not his best by any means but do not let this deter you from reading it. I would have preferred to wait another year so that it could be beefed up.
The Maintenance of Headway is an odd little book. At only 150 small pages, it doesn't take long to read but the author's name alone - Magnus Mills - is enough to whet the appetite. Mills specialises in slightly quirky workplace novels or novellas. He sets out a complex layer of detail - jargon, rules, procedures, factions - to lend credibility to the most absurd situations. Always, the focus is on getting the detail right, ignoring the dead bodies piling up.
The Maintenance of Headway is a little different. For a start, the surreal landscape has been replaced by a recognizable London landscape. The jargonized placenames: The Cross; the Arch; the Southern Outpost; and the Bejewelled Thoroughfare can all be readily identified. Then there's the workplace - no longer a pointless exercise in filling time, it's driving buses. Something that really happens - and something which Magnus Mills used to do himself, as it happens.
The book pitches straight into the ongoing battle between drivers and inspectors as drivers fight for those extra precious minutes and inspectors seek to maintain the gaps between buses. There is plenty of philosophical analysis of the running of buses: the paradox of late buses becoming ever later as it takes longer to board and disembark the extra passengers who have accumulated since the previous bus; the phenomenon of buses catching and leapfrogging one another; the rudeness of drivers; and the bizarre origins of the request stops. But this is no more than a bus passenger will have observed for him- or herself. Because, goodness knows, there's little else to think about on a typical bus commute in London.
The setting on the buses has advantages and disadvantages. The main advantage is that almost everything has a ring of truth about it. At times, it feels like a docusoap set in the bus depot - snatched and inconsequential conversations being repeated day and daily. A driver narrating to camera as he drives his way onwards, over the bridge for the 1000th time this year, explaining the relative merits of an early shift over a late shift. But the main disadvantage is that the grounding in truth simply doesn't have the absurdity to lift if off the page. The real world feels two dimensional when compared to Mills's fictional worlds. The obsession with four minutes here and two minutes there is simply not enough. Moreover, the inclusion of the occasional fictional detail - Thompson's misdemeanour, for example - sticks out so obviously from the reality that it breaks the flow.
This doesn't mean that the book is unreadable. It just lacks that something special. It lacks plot; it lacks fantasy - and that exposes the rather cartoonish characters.
The brevity of The Maintenance of Headway means it doesn't outstay its welcome. But neither does it satisfy the craving for another classic Magnus Mills novel.
on 16 June 2010
I do like a good book which embraces the average normal man or woman. In the case of `The Maintenance of Headway' the average men, and one woman, who make up the book are a group of bus drivers driving the public to and from their depot in a large unnamed city (the book heavily conjured London throughout, but that might be because I live here). That pretty much is the synopsis of this fairly short novel, and no to be honest it didn't initially grab me that it would be a brilliant work of fiction from just that synopsis. Yet it is a marvellous, witty book that you will read quicker than you could think.
There were two things that really won me over with this book, the first was the characters. There is nothing extraordinary about them, but that's what makes them so great. You can picture this bunch of men (and a woman) going about their daily grind with complete clarity, in fact if you live in a city you have probably met a lot of them. Some of them love their job, a few to the point of obsessing, others are complete jobs-worth's (calling themselves `mass transportation operatives') and others are clearly there for the cash and if they can get over time the will try their damndest to. You don't see more than their daily working lives but you don't need to through their work ethics and methods Mills leaves you with firm opinions of what sort of personalities they are.
The second thing that won me over with the book is the feeling that I have been there too. We have all waited forty minutes for a buss for four to arrive, we have all been annoyed/pleased when someone runs to get on a bus and the driver stops just as they are pulling away, we have all cursed diversions and water leaks for making us late. With this book we see it and laugh along with it. Not that the book ever becomes a caricature, more it pokes fun at the reader almost saying `you know you've done this'. The book is very simply written, its dialogue and thought but Mills doesn't need heaps of depth to make his point and make you read on, you just do.
When I learnt that Magnus Mills was actually a bus driver until he became a paid writer an initial lazy thought of `oh well, he just wrote what he knew' and yet I am sure in part that is true but it does a disservice to Mills to think its just down to that. I get the feeling Mills watches people intently and with a mixture of celebration and pessimism takes note of people, their characters and the situations they might be in, stores it, mildly tweaks it and then puts it on paper for us to enjoy occasionally admitting that this could actually be about us ourselves.
on 29 July 2009
Any criticism of a Mills novel which centres around the pointlessness of the plot tells you very clearly that the reviewer does not 'get' Mills, and that's fine, because he is certainly a writer for those with a particular sense of humour. It is undoubtedly the case that the 'drama' which unfolds in the book is relatively insignificant when compared to that of other novels, but this is not a weakness - in fact, it is very much the point.
I would, however, agree that the lack of an underlying sense of a sinister or perplexing direction to events means The Maintenance of Headway lacks the enthralling qualities that made The Restraint of Beasts and All Quiet such fascinating works. As such, Maintenance is probably the weakest of Mills' releases so far (with the possible exceptional of Explorers, about which I have particular reservations). Though, of course, a weaker novel by this writer is still well worth a look if you've read some of his others and appreciate what a unique voice he is in the literary landscape.
Overall, a thought provoking and enjoyable addition to the Mills catalogue, though let's hope there is still plenty more to come.
on 1 November 2009
A bitter disapointment... The first three books - absolutely brilliant. This, considering he's an ex bus driver and the subject of the book is London buses, goes (rather like the buses he sometimes describes) absolutely nowhere. I know, having worked on them myself, there's potential there for a great book. But this??? Just pages filled with (not many) words. It's not profound. It's not Mills. It's just Mills milking the publisher, and the public. The dialogue is nothing like the average bus driver's canteen - or world. There are some home truths but, a bit like the Scheme for Full Employment, but 200 times worse, this is an opportunity missed - a complete waste of money and time and I wouldn't recommend it to anyone - bus driver, ex or not. This is a very lazy novel.
on 3 September 2009
I love Mills' deceptively simple deadpan style of writing, and this book contains some classic off-beat, surreal philosophical dialogue. However, I still found the Maintenance of Headway surprisingly dull, much like waiting for a bus that never turns up. Throughout the book one is left waiting for the mundanity of the bus drivers' lot to change into absurdity, which it never truly does. The Maintenance of Headway neither contains the humour of Restraint of Beasts, nor the foreboding of All Quiet on the Orient Express, nor the absurdity of the Scheme For Full Empoyment. All in all, this book came in well short of expectations.
on 28 July 2009
After totally falling in love with all of his previous books, I was REALLY looking forward to this, so I'm sorry to say I was pretty disappointed.
Although it has a lot of Mills-esque trademarks, eg fairly mundane work duties described in detail and a nameless history-less narrator, there was definitely something missing here. In his other books there was always a strong undercurrent of sinister mystery lurking beneath everything as well as great dialogue and enigmatic characters but those qualities were almost completely lacking with this one.
I now know more about buses than I'd ever really want to, but not much about anything else... No one like Mr Parker or Tam, none of those deadpan chapter endings, not one laugh in the whole book... (just one wry smile - not to give too much away but I got the reference) I wouldn't say it was a bad book exactly, but it has nothing like the depth of his previous work.
Oh well, I guess I'll just have to reread The Restraint of Beasts (again) when I need my next proper Mills fix...!
on 9 January 2010
Magnus Mills' novels are rather like marmite: you either love them or hate them, and I fall firmly in the former category. But this one is a bit different. It certainly has the same format - an unnamed narrator and a rather mundane and routine occupation that is turned into something rather different and absurd by the people who inhabit the world that Mr Mills creates. There is, though, usually a rather dark undercurrent running through the story, and although nothing is openly stated, he reader is left with an uneasy feeling after finishing the book.
But that darknes doesn't materialise in this story. It is just about buses and bus drivers and their battles with the inspectors and the maintenance of headway. The drivers would like to finish their journeys early so they can have a nice rest before they move on. But there are no excuses for being early, as the inspectors constantly remind the drivers. There are, however, many excuses for being late! (How very true).
It's a short book, and written in the customary short sentences which are mainly dialog and not much descriptive text. I enjoyed it, like I do all of Mr Mills' books, but I felt it was lacking something. It has made me look forward to his next one though.
on 9 August 2009
I can see why some reviewers found Maintenance of Headway a bit blank for their tastes - but anyone who has had anything to do with London's transport system will find something to laugh out loud about in this book. Everyone he writes about really does exist. I loved it, but don't read it expecting a clever plot twist. Read it to understand your bus driver... and maybe to learn why you ALWAYS need to check if your bus stop flag is red or white before you stand there.