Tuesday, January 5, 2010

No plot, no momentum. No problem?

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.

12 comments:

Nancy said...

One of our local writers from Canterbury reviewed this book in the Guardian:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2009/aug/22/maintenance-of-headway-magnus-mills

Wondered if this helped. I am trying to make up for my knitting mistake : )

jrlennon said...

Sure--their formulation "a subtle meditation on what it means to try to impose order in a fundamentally chaotic world" is a good way of putting it. A charitable way, would be the cruel thing to say--but ultimately I can get behind their assessment of the book.

rmellis said...

Did you really say this book doesn't have a lot of "drive?" hahahah!

Well, I also really like "Three To See the King" -- but "Explorers of the New Century" is just too.... I dunno. Aimless.

Magnus Mills seems like a good person to read if you're a blocked writer. It's like, See how little you need to make a book?

jrlennon said...

It's true--you don't have to do much. You just have to do it well.

Gary said...

I hadn't heard of this guy so I just bought a copy of All Quiet on the Orient Express - it sounded interesting.
The way I see it is that plot is a great thing to have - and difficult to manipulate well, and very effective if manipulated well - but if you feel the desire to try, you can do without it. But you cant really do without characters. In the hierarchy of things, as Forster said, characters have priority.

Pale Ramón said...

Perhaps the novel's plot is the internal life of the main character? This would be more likely if the novel were not a work of realism.

jrlennon said...

I think it's fair to say that's so. Perhaps this is why I liked it? I always return to Lydia Davis when this subject comes up--with her, the plot is always simply the flow of thoughts, and that is always enough.

zoe said...

I had also never heard of him and have ordered the Orient Express book. Nice to try someone new.

This post reminded me a bit of something you said ages ago about Arlington Road by Rachel Cusk. That was all about thoughts and descriptions and very little plot. But I think she was paying homage to Mrs Dalloway. Although, I may have imagined that I read that somewhere at the time.

jrlennon said...

I can see the Woolf comparison, but Mrs. Dalloway was about the war, ultimately, and the Cusk book didn't have a real moral dilemma to pull it together.

but on the other hand...a book doesn't need a big moral dilemma to be good, does it. So that argument's out. In any event, I liked that book but didn't love it.

Sung said...

This makes me the third person to have bought the All Quiet on the Orient Express on the blog! I hope you get 15%, John.

jrlennon said...

Huh...we've never set up any kind of deal with Powells...perhaps we're missing out. We just like 'em.

rmellis said...

Well, I hope they like it! It's a very idiosyncratic book.