First one, then another, then another, then another after that

Theo Tait

  • The Restraint of Beasts by Magnus Mills
    Flamingo, 215 pp, £9.99, September 1998, ISBN 0 00 225720 3

In the mid-August silly season, excitement for bored hacks was provided by a rumour of mysterious origin, about a London bus driver who had received a fortune – the statutory ‘cool million’ – in advances and film rights for his first novel. Although the real advance was soon discovered to be substantially smaller, Brixton bus garage was besieged by reporters and photographers hoping to catch a glimpse of Magnus Mills, perhaps scribbling in the cab of his Routemaster, or discussing Joyce in rhyming slang. We have since been bombarded with features, interviews and increasingly laborious jokes, usually along the lines of Wendy Cope’s poem about men and buses (‘Typical. You wait years for an article about you. Then 20 turn up at once.’) Mills was amazed by the press stereotyping and the media’s apparently inexhaustible appetite for bus-related copy, but has done little to discourage it all. The poker-faced potted biography in his novel, for instance, slyly omits that he has an economics degree and has written regularly for the Independent, concentrating instead on his famous job and previous experiences working ‘with dangerous machinery’.

Flamingo’s marketing offensive was given a further boost by a rare, cryptic – and surprisingly ungainly – endorsement from Thomas Pynchon, who described Mills’s novel as a ‘demented, deadpan comic wonder’ with ‘the exuberant power of a magic word it might possibly be dangerous (like the title of a certain other Scottish tale) to speak out loud’. Later, a great deal of insubstantial but newsworthy controversy followed its nomination for the Booker shortlist. An appalled Auberon Waugh made a public objection, on the principled grounds that it wouldn’t do to make every taxi driver think they had a novel in them. ‘If the judges give the Booker Prize to a bus driver for the sake of publicity,’ he said, ‘I shall despise them.’ The Booker judge Valentine Cunningham explained that ‘all the women liked the bus driver’ and sneeringly described the book as ‘quite ordinary and evening-class’.

The novel is ill-served by these caricatures and is quite a bit more interesting than its publicity. Beasts are restrained by the employees of a Scottish fencing company: a nameless English narrator and Tam and Richie, two fairly useless workmen under his command, who leave a trail of dissatisfied customers across the country. The first of these is Mr McCrindle, who phones the company to complain that his new fence has gone slack: ‘As Mr McCrindle had demonstrated by his phone call, the main concern of farmers was that their fences should be tight. Without this the restraint of beasts was impossible.’ After McCrindle’s fence has been tightened, the company boss Donald sends the men on a job to a featureless area of Hereford and Worcester. Their days follow a pattern: they put up fences with numbing slowness, stop for cigarette breaks, eat, go to the pub and then retire to their dingy caravan. This procedure is punctuated only by accidental homicides and the protagonists’ growing unease about the obscure activities of Hall Brothers, a local family business. Initially, the Halls appear to run a rival fencing company, but it emerges that their main concern is a large meat factory, producing sausages and pies. As the novel draws to its end, the brothers take on the Scottish fencers to build worryingly large pens outside their packing plant: the narrator feels a certain amount of foreboding, wondering ‘what sort of “beasts” required a seven-foot-high electric fence’.

The Restraint of Beasts cheerfully exploits literary conventions lifted from Kafka, Beckett and Pinter. There is much terse dialogue loaded with menace: Donald subtly adjusts the heating and lighting in his office according to the atmosphere that he wishes to create, explaining darkly that ‘these things can be controlled.’ Mysterious institutional forces conspire against the protagonists: Donald and the Hall brothers appear to have some secret agreement which is controlling the fencers’ destiny. Violent events are described with an absurdist detachment; there is a great deal of pointless repetition. The novel spurns rounded characterisation and detailed description of context; the prose is spare, almost without adjectives. The story finishes where the revelations ought to begin. The result is mostly accomplished and often very funny: a low-calorie, knockabout version of Modernist angst, with loving attention to inconsequential detail – ‘floaters’ in the Irn Bru, the sound of rubber boots unsticking themselves from warm lino. But this is to make it sound more bookish than it really is. It is ‘Kafkaesque’ only in the easygoing manner of a Coen brothers film or an episode of The Prisoner – the farcical deaths certainly owe more to Nineties cinema than to any literary precedents.

One of the novel’s more engaging and original aspects is Mills’s determination to submerge the reader in the world of the fence. Post-hammers, hole-digging, support struts, straining posts, and the difference between working with barbed and ordinary wire are all discussed at great length, and to strangely hypnotic effect. The process of making sure that the fence-posts are straight is given special attention. It involves kneeling down at one end of the fence and checking the alignment by squinting with one eye closed. The narrator watches in his usual state of impassive confusion as the employees are made to genuflect before Donald’s showpiece ‘Demonstration Fence’ like the members of a cult. Fencing provides the figure around which the entire novel is built, in incident, language and structure – ‘very repetitive knocking all those posts in ... First one, then another, then another, then another after that.’ Tam and Richie, like Vladimir and Estragon, have a series of repeated, vaguely comic routines; catchphrases – ‘it’s like the Retreat from Moscow’ – are delivered, and then eerily echoed by other, unrelated characters. All the deaths are nearly identical; and all the bodies are buried under fence-posts. Tam and Richie’s fathers become increasingly obsessed with fencing. The landlord of the local English pub appears to kneel and check with one eye that the narrator and his workers are properly aligned when he serves their drinks. ‘Enough to drive you mad. All that repetition,’ as one of the Hall brothers says.

The Restraint of Beasts was apparently inspired by Primo Levi’s If This Is a Man, and asks to be read as an analogical extension of Levi’s description of the Lager as a gigantic social experiment:

Thousands of individuals differing in age, condition, origin, language, culture and customs are enclosed within barbed wire; there they live a regular, controlled life which is identical for all and inadequate for all needs, and which is more rigorous than any experimenter could have set up to establish what is essential and what adventitious to the conduct of the human animal in the struggle for life.

Mills likes to remind us that farm animals are not the only restrained beasts. Tam and Richie are always being ‘herded’ in and out of buildings; John Hall compares them to roaming wildebeest, and tells his brother to ‘take them to the pens ... That’s the best place for them.’ The Holocaust parallels, too, are laid on pretty thick. Donald describes the ‘permanent electric high-tensile fence’ as the ‘final solution to the problem of the restraint of beasts’. The factory, like the Lager, has sinister messages written on the walls. And the narrator admits to certain misgivings, complaining that Donald ‘was forever talking about “rounding us up” and “shipping us off” as though we were being transported to some sort of penal colony or corrective camp, rather than merely going to undertake a commercial contract’.

This reworking of tragedy as farce is one of the novel’s less satisfactory features. Levi describes a world of random prohibition and deliberately inscrutable reasoning – ‘Hier ist kein warum,’ a guard announces to him soon after his arrival in Auschwitz-Monowitz. Mills attempts to evoke this subtext, as the employers try to exert more and more control over their employees. Similarly, the book trumpets its interest in unexplained causes and impenetrable motives (the words ‘therefore they killed him’ are printed on the cover) but Mills’s acute satire of management-speak would work much better if the reader wasn’t constantly nudged into making comparisons with the SS. The concentration-camp metaphor – present-day Britain as the iron cage of contract labour – cannot bear the heavy and sometimes crude investment that Mills makes in it. The novel’s light comic escapades and often quite flimsy premises sit uneasily with the heavy stuff about work and freedom. The disturbing sausage factory, for example, is an idea far too shop-worn to be unsettling. And it can sometimes seem that Mills’s determination to avoid traditional characterisation has merely had the effect of reducing Tam and Richie to burlesques of stupid Scottish people.

The best thing about The Restraint of Beasts is its sense of humour. The deadpan, precisely paced exchanges and off-beat narrative gags hold it together. But the same story has been told much better elsewhere: Paul Auster’s The Music of Chance, for example, also features characters living in a caravan, while putting up pointless barriers under the ominous supervision of eccentric local bigwigs. Auster’s novel is powerful, intricately worked and genuinely terrifying. There are excellent sequences at the beginning and end of The Restraint of Beasts, but like farmer McCrindle’s fence, it goes slack somewhere in the middle.