I don't think I got up from the couch a single time while reading the new Magnus Mills novel, The Maintenance of Headway. (Sorry, US readers, it's UK only at the moment--I got it at the college library.) It isn't that it's so gripping--it's that it's exactly like all of Mills' novels, so short and amiable that you can't think of any real reason to stop until you're done.
Mills is one of my favorite novelists--his deadpan narratives crack me up, and he doesn't appear to be influenced by anyone at all. His books are always about a job (fence builder, painter, explorer, etc.) and a mystery--just one mystery, mind you, one single thing that doesn't make any sense, and that you're dying to figure out. The central question in a Mills book is "What the hell's going on?" And at the end, you're always rewarded with the answer. Rhian's favorite is the hilarious All Quiet on the Orient Express; I favor Mills' two novels set in some indeterminate imaginary past, Three to See the King and Explorers of the New Century.
This one, though, is about bus driving, and I have to tell you, this time, even the mystery is gone. There is NO plot. I mean NONE. Indeed, it reads more like a memoir, or a diary even--Mills used to drive a bus. There are a few characters--other drivers and transportation officials--and a few minor dramas, like a water main break and a fired employee. But there's no story, no momentum, no nothing. Just people driving buses. The only attempt at suspense is the fired employee. Why was he fired? For a hundred pages, you don't know. Then you find out.
Is it possible for a novel to be so deadpan that it is actually dead? This one is the test case. I don't think it's quite pointless--indeed, I enjoyed it. It seems as though Mills has been saving up this material for a long time--and it's good material, a fine sketch of an obscure subculture. But I don't think I've ever read anything with less drive, less ambition, than this little novel. And I can't decide, in the end, if it's audacious or boring. Perhaps it's both.