The Seeds of Mills’ Field

Poor Magnus Mills, the marginalised maestro of contemporary British literature. Although his début, The Restraint of Beasts, landed on the Booker Prize longlist almost twenty years ago, his ten subsequent titles haven’t won him much of a mainstream profile. In a sense, that’s no surprise. Mills makes little effort to appeal to a popular readership. His novels, especially, are abstract and opaque, recursive and pedantic, short on story and long on incidents of no apparent significance, and they loudly and proudly disavow any sense of purpose or relevance beyond their own pages. Still, it’s sad that his work has attracted only a niche following. His books are bitterly funny, belonging to that breed of deadpan absurdism and not-quite-fabulism pioneered by Donald Barthelme, and their narratives are supremely structured around elaborate schemes of concealments and revelations.

If you’re one of the many who haven’t yet jumped aboard the bandwagon, Mills’ latest novel, The Field of the Cloth of Gold, might entice you to make the leap. It contains a good dose of everything that makes Mills worth reading, and in fact it not only embraces the tendencies that colour his backlist but also brings them to a sort of apotheosis. Longtime fans may the book a little irritating, perhaps a compendium of retreads of some of Mills’ greatest hits, but for newcomers it will open up the perfect port of entry to his entire body of work and to the array of bizarre scenarios he has spent his career creating.

The novel follows the petty squabbles of a handful of settlers who arrive piecemeal on a remote field in an unnamed country, in an unidentifiable era, in order to seed the land with a scattering of tents and camps. “The Great Field,” the narrator informs us, “lay in the bend of a broad, meandering river. Irregular in shape, it was bounded in the east, south and west by water, and in the north it dwindled gradually into wilderness.” He describes the field as “grassland, pure and simple,” with “nothing to distinguish it from the countless neighbouring fields.” Nevertheless, the narrator is keen to emphasise that in the eyes of “a select few,” himself included, “it was the chosen field: the place where momentous events would unfold and come to fruition.”

When the narrator arrives on the field, it is occupied only by an irritable man named Hen, the original settler. Following in Hen’s footsteps, the narrator erects a tent, more a large decorative pavilion than a swag, and, soon thereafter, additional settlers arrive in waves and set about erecting tents of their own. All of them are lone men, and they manage to live together in a laidback, ramshackle harmony. “We were a handful of tents scattered far and wide across the immensity of the field,” the narrator says. “All around us was spaciousness, peace and tranquility.” But then a couple of new arrivals destabilise the situation, breaking the homogeneity of the settlers and upsetting the balance of power between them. First to appear is the settlement’s only woman, the brash and provocative Isabella, who stays on in spite of repeatedly voicing her disappointment with her new surroundings. The settlement doesn’t live up to the rumours of its existence that have spread across the land and that encouraged her to seek it out: “I envisaged a vast sea of tents billowing in the breeze,” she says, “flags flying, pennants fluttering and so forth.” Then there are the standoffish newcomers who arrive as a troupe and institute an “orderly regime” with “functional tents,” apparently determined to formalise and systematise the settlers’ previously slapdash and carefree way of life.

Who are all these settlers? Where have they come from? Why do they pitch tents on this field? What “momentous events” do they hope will unfold? How do they survive so far from civilisation? How do they subsist without exploiting the land? What might lie beyond the field they have chosen? These and similar questions arise, almost inevitably, as a result of the increasingly illogical events of Mills’ novel, but The Field of the Cloth of Gold never answers them and, in a sense, it doesn’t even really pose them. They’re conjured up by the absurdity of the situation Mills presents, but nothing in the book seems designed to tempt readers into considering them. On the contrary, The Field of the Cloth of Gold aspires to be a closed system. The characters have no lives, no history, no backstory, no identity outside of what can be gleaned from their involvement in the narrative action. There is nothing beyond the field because the perspective never shifts beyond the occupants of the field. The novel never admits the existence of anyone, or the occurrence of anything, outside of the scenes it depicts. The field and the people who populate it, shorn of distinguishing particularities, become motes in a bubble of abstraction severed from anything we might recognise as a plausible world. The Field of the Cloth of Gold is, in short, concerned almost exclusively with the project of populating the Great Field, which is to say that it is concerned with its own narrative premise — that there is such a field, nothing more and nothing less — and it toys with this concern not as other novels do, not by taking it as the starting point for a narrative whose development involves introducing further elements, but by elaborating only on the elements already embedded in the premise.

It is in this respect that Field is very much of a piece with Mills’ broader body of work. Taken as a whole, that body of work is marked by a couple of signature concerns and a distinctive stylistic manoeuvre which appears in book after book after book.

Mills’ foremost concerns are the process of perfecting extensive and intricate systems intended to achieve specific objectives, and the obsessive mindset of the type of person who often assumes responsibility for that process. Early in The Restraint of Beasts, the narrator, a labourer employed in the business of erecting high-tensile fencing in northern England, bristles in the presence of his boss, Donald, who is fixated upon ways of increasing the productivity, quality, and efficiency of his company. “Donald’s pursuit of perfection seemed to be taking things too far,” the narrator remarks, and his words could easily stand as a mantra for the lamentations of almost all of Mills’ protagonists. Typically, these protagonists are victims of petty egomaniacs, of tinpot tyrants consumed by a passion for either fine-tuning a serpentine bureaucratic system or else bringing into reality, with the utmost precision, a system that at first exists only theoretically. These egomaniacs invariably denigrate the complexities of human interactions, demanding an end to the mundane daily affairs of real people and failing to account for the foibles of their hapless minions. In effect, they jettison all consideration of anything that is not directly related to their efforts to ensure that the system entrusted to them exists in its most pristine possible form.

Mills’ back catalogue is replete with accounts of men — only men — who stoically endure the pangs of such systems while labouring under the egomaniacs in charge of them. In The Scheme for Full Employment, the system is intended to occupy unemployed nobodies by assigning them an endless series of spurious tasks that merely ape the appearance of productive labour and therefore make a mockery of those who earnestly administer the system. In Explorers of the New Century, two competing systems attempt to land two expeditions of rugged men in the heart of the wasteland known as the Agreed Furthest Point from Civilisation, despite the fact that the leaders of each system are pursuing the same meretricious objective. Pick up any novel by Mills and you’ll find that there’s always a system in place, always an egomaniac to oversee its implementation, and almost always a protagonist from middle management who has to reconcile the impossible demands of his superior with the complaints, refusals, and misdemeanours of the underlings he’s responsible for. Crucially, though, the egomaniac’s attention is always directed towards a part of the system that is singularly inconsequential or inane, or else towards a part whose significance is kept beyond the ken of the reader. This is what makes the egomaniac’s fervent devotion to the system so unintelligible, so ludicrous, and it’s what makes the protagonist’s devotion to honouring the egomaniac’s instructions so absurd.

Beyond all this, Mills’ broader concern is the ways in which such systems dehumanise and destroy the people who run them because they are designed to be, above all else, self-reinforcing. In other words, for Mills, the rationale behind the existence of such a system is simply to maintain its own existence. Fuck its effects on the human beings who make it run. Fuck its nominal objectives and the way they will supposedly improve real lives. Systems exist for themselves, and their existence is safeguarded by people employed to preserve their existence at the expense of delivering the outcomes that their beneficiaries have been promised. The obtuse administrators of the phenomenally complex bus scheduling system in The Maintenance of Headway incarnate this phenomenon better than anyone else in the Mills oeuvre. Why do buses exist? To shuttle passengers from one point to another point along a predetermined route. How are they made to perform this task? In accordance with a timetable indicating the frequency with which they’ll arrive at and depart from each of those points. What happens when traffic interferes with the flow of the system, diminishing “headway” so that there is a loss of adequate distance between any two buses servicing the same route? An administrator pulls one bus off the route and diverts it to another route or takes it out of commission altogether. What about the passengers on that bus? What about the passengers who need to catch that bus? What about fidelity to the sacred timetable? What about the passengers who will now have to anxiously wait for a bus that doesn’t arrive until much, much later than the timetable indicates it should show up? Fuck ’em, fuck ’em, fuck ’em. Fuck them one and all. The system is God.

For the administrators of the hypothetical systems that Mills constructs in his novels, the cohesion of the system in a theoretical sense is pretty much all that matters. These men are devoted to the system as an ideal concept, as a system that functions flawlessly insofar as it is uncorrupted by people who might need to make use of it. But of course a system without users is a system that has no reason to exist at all, which means that its administrators have no real reason to exist either. Typically, then, Mills focuses not only on people who are devoted to the perfection of a system at extraordinary cost to the humanity of themselves and others, but on people whose obsessive perfectionism, and whose compliance with the dictates of perfectionists, undermines the logic that gives the system its very being. The same double-bind shows up again in The Field of the Cloth of Gold. The purpose of systematising the settlement of the Great Field is so that the settlement of the field can be systematised. Why the field should be settled at all, let alone settled in a systematised way, remains an open question throughout the entire novel.

Stylistically, though, none of the absurd circumstances orchestrated by Mills are varnished in prose that stresses their comic elements, and Mills’ straight-faced approach to his elaborate ridiculousness only makes them more fatuous. “When I entered the field kitchen,” says the narrator of The Field of the Cloth of Gold after he requisitions some implements that are vital to the expansion of the settlement, “I discovered further evidence of decline: the great cast-iron cooking pots were still ranged along the counter, but now they all stood cold and unused. Yadegarian was working nearby, cutting a loaf of bread into very thin slices. … Apparently the cooks had received instructions that all bread was to be toasted so it would last longer. Yadegarian loaded the grill and asked me to keep an eye on it while he sought out my dish and spoon.” Are you impressed by the beauty of the prose? Have you been swept away by the urgency of the drama? I doubt it. But the novel goes on like this, on and on, circumventing the question of why on earth anyone would want to spend their lives systematically settling the Great Field, and focusing instead on the tedium of bread rationing, in prose so simple and direct and matter-of-fact that, tonally, sentences unfold on the implicit assumption that readers couldn’t possibly be interested in anything more than exactly what each sentence has to say.

This sort of prose is not unique to Mills’ most recent novel, nor is the tonal gloss it affords his characters and the narratives in which he involves them. Mills’ characters are routinely thrown into extreme situations — situations every bit as impersonal, immobilising, and inescapable as those of Josef K — and yet Mills’ prose elides any sort of adequate and correspondingly extreme emotional response. His sentences are plain, workmanlike, often monosyllabic and repetitive. They are whatever you might call the opposite of eloquent, the opposite of lyrical, the opposite of the overused descriptor “finely wrought.” The effect of these sentences, across all of Mills’ novels, is an emotional detachment from the palpable conditions that embroil the characters at the coalface of impossible systems, and thus a further transfer of emotional energy into the system as a purely theoretical construct. In Three to See the King, for instance, the narrator is obsessed with his plan to live alone in a remote desert in a house made entirely of tin. Fair enough, and suitably ludicrous. But his schoolboyish pride in living in a tin house takes the form of an asinine repetition of the brute fact that he lives in such a house, and the cumulative effect of this repetition is to establish the statement of the fact itself as the thing he values most. It conveys no sense whatsoever of the tactile experience of having his body occupy that space for years on end. It anaesthetises the reader’s negative capability, transforming the narrative from something potentially immersive into a bizarrely dissociative spectacle to be observed from afar. It also pantomimes verisimilitude, simultaneously nominating elements of an environment that ought to establish a picture of the narrator’s reality and nullifying their capacity for vividness, their capacity to create an impression of realism, so that what is ultimately created is an empty mimicry of the moves that other novels conventionally make in order to create that impression.

Much the same can be said of the effects of Mills’ description of the trek away from civilisation in Explorers of the New Century, or of his report on the dispute between the “early swervers” and the “flat eighters” in The Scheme for Full Employment. It can be said, too, of his transcriptions of banter between the timetable administrators and the bus drivers in The Maintenance of Headway, and of his depictions of the myriad consequences of spilled paint in All Quiet on the Orient Express. It can especially be said of the narrator’s account of digging an irrigation trench across the Great Field in The Field of the Cloth of Gold. Gruelling work, at least in theory. Brambles have to be cleared. Boots are quickly caked in mud. Exhaustion is endured, or is at least said to have been endured. But where’s the sweat soaking into heavy clothes and the burn of the midday sun on someone’s brow? Where’s the feeling of grass and rock underfoot or the jolt through the handle of the spade when the iron strikes into the soil? None of these elements are conjured up because you’re not supposed to believe in the existence of that trench. You’re only supposed to become aware that you’re being asked to believe in it, and you’re being asked politely, as it were, by someone who can’t implore you to believe in it because he himself lacks conviction — and because he overruns its environs with characters who’d rather draw up blueprints for castles in the clouds than keep their feet planted firmly on the ground.

But why write like this? What might be Mills’ long game? What could possibly be his objective? I can’t pretend to have any clear answers, but there’s one thing I’m sure it’s not. There’s a temptation to think of Mills as a modern-day fabulist, a purveyor of parables or allegories, and you need only glance at the blurbs on his books to see that a good number of readers and critics have given into it. Maybe that’s defensible. You could easily lump him in with Steven Millhauser or Wayne Macauley, both of whom fashion fictions that are equally disengaged from the real world and therefore equally susceptible to being read as texts that respond to real world phenomena by oblique, indirect means. But this strikes me as a way of simply bypassing precisely what it is that makes Mills’ work distinctive. Sure, fine, I agree that he enjoys satirising neoliberal economics. We’ve known that much since he débuted with a tale of emotionally and psychologically stunted men who set out to erect fences for “the restraint of beasts” and end up restraining themselves in a cramped system of exchange between capital and labour. You could go ahead and put together a monograph on the subject, peppered with plentiful insights from the pages of Das Kapital. But if Mills writes his novels largely for the purpose of satirising or otherwise critiquing the neoliberal mindset, what is the point of his decision to write novels at all? If what really matters is the commentary that might be taken away from the experience of having read Mills’ books, why bother going through the experience of reading them in the first place when you could just as easily turn to a précis of the commentary?

What makes Magnus Mills worth reading is the mounting effect of the choices he arrives at incrementally, word by word and line by line, throughout his body of work. Importantly, more often than not, these choices serve to extend the disjuncture between the outlandishness of his scenarios and the plainspokenness of his prose. This is to say that they function so as to avoid reconciling those two things — either by avoiding a style that carries the emotional charge of the scenario, or by avoiding a scenario as humble and domesticated as the prose — and this is to say, in turn, that Mills’ novels unfold in ways that continuously, painstakingly avoid resolution, postponing it indefinitely with every page. To neatly resolve its mystery by throwing it straight into the box of fabulism is, I think, to violate it, to deny its most distinctive quality. Of course you might have to say that if this is true, if Mills’ novels flat-out don’t engage with the real world in any meaningful terms, then Mills’ entire body of work amounts to simply a prolonged exercise in gratuity, a slow-motion act of creation contingent upon nothing more profound than the author’s whims and wishes. Personally, I’d venture that this is exactly the case, and I’d say it’s especially true in light of Mills’ recent movement towards wholesale abstraction in The Field of the Cloth of Gold and its beguiling but cheerful predecessor, A Cruel Bird Came to the Nest and Looked In. It can be hard to accept that books which literary conventions would have us read as fables aren’t actually fables at all, but I genuinely can’t see that Mills’ novels are up to anything more than exactly what they appear to be up to — except insofar as they knowingly manufacture the appearance of being up to much more. Given that I struggle to think of another author capable of pulling off this feat so consistently and at such length over so many books, the dogged but stylistically easygoing irresolution of Mills’ novels is for me their deepest source of pleasure.

I realise now that I’ve said less about The Field of the Cloth of Gold than about Mills’ work as a whole, even if everything I’ve said is germane to the new novel in its guise as a gathering point for Mills’ creative preoccupations to date. I have to add, however, that The Field of the Cloth of Gold is not Mills’ greatest accomplishment. That honour belongs to either Explorers of the New Century or A Cruel Bird Came to the Nest, both of which are more sophisticated in their literary artistry and their exploitation of literature’s unique capabilities. Explorers extracts incredible power from the unsettling definition, redefinition, and re-redefinition of a particular word — a noun — which represents a thing in the world that readers must apprehend as a concept without a definite physical form if its meaning is to be amorphous. A Cruel Bird relies on painstaking descriptions of physical objects and processes which would be mundane when visualised but are, paradoxically, impossibly dynamic when itemised, meaning that the book relies on passages of sinuous imagery that do not lend themselves to detailed imagination. Both Explorers and A Cruel Bird are therefore novels that subject worldly referents to techniques that sidestep direct depiction, especially cinematic depiction, and for that reason they embrace the exclusive possibilities of their artform with greater results than does The Field of the Cloth of Gold.

That said, Field has a simplicity and a purity of purpose that together make it a uniquely appealing novel. If Explorers and A Cruel Bird are banquets, serving up lovingly crafted platefuls of a select dishes that showcase Mills’ most potent flavours, The Field of the Cloth of Gold is more like a tasting platter or smörgåsbord of his flairs and virtues. It offers an opportunity to sample, liberally but in less concentrated form, the results of every talent he has honed throughout his career. It can be a book of mixed blessings, or a book whose blessings become increasingly mixed in proportion to a reader’s existing familiarity with Mills, since any showcase of talents runs runs the risk of reminding onlookers that those talents have occasionally been exercised more skilfully elsewhere. At the same time, though, the novel validates the admiration of readers who have long been drawn to Mills, confirming that none of his previous accomplishments was a fluke, and it reveals a glimmer of the treasures that await newcomers for whom the book marks the first step along a trail leading away from the grassland at the bend in the river to sites of other, older riches.

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