Mills, A Cruel Bird…

Friday 23 September 2011 22.55 BST

A Cruel Bird Came to the Nest and Looked In by Magnus Mills – review
Magnus Mills’s seventh novel is as odd, endearing and disturbing as ever

Outlandish, but familiar … Magnus Mills. Photograph: Murdo Macleod
Ian Sanso

Magnus Mills has constructed a world that is a mixture of Gulliver’s Travels, The Trial, and 1984. Greater Fallowfield, centre of a once great seafaring empire, ekes out the final social capital of its era of dominance. Its society decays into tolerant, gentle, hidebound desuetude.

Greater Fallowfields, a capital city boasting Palladian buildings and set in a park by the sea, feels like a felicitous part of the eighteenth century. Indeed, the administration is composed of well enough schooled amateurs. Yet there are serfs and a working class recruited from Peter Sellers’ “I’m Alright Jack”. There are resentments but consensus is maintained. Yet this can’t be the eighteenth century because the City of Scoffers, the polity next door, has built a vast railway network. Meanwhile, across the sea, is a nameless country offers the possibility of car assembly plants. Locomotive COS is deeply threatened by the automotive strangers. But Greater Fallow Fieldians are blissfully ignorant of all of these facts about the world and try to ignore them when circumstances compel. In short, Magnus Mills has constructed an economically anomalous and inconsistent world. Does this matter?

It shouldn’t. But at first it did. It seemed impossible that Fallow Fieldians, as liberal and as individualist as they were, should ignore and shun the facts of the world.

But I admit that as I got deeper into the book I enjoyed more the twin trick that Mills pulled off. I grew interested in the personalities and psychologies of the main characters and I was interested in finding out how Mills worked out and through the tensions caused by anachronism and the fact that the world operated according to several overlapping chronologies.

Greater Fallow Fields prided itself with the myth that it had achieved in the long distant past a benign and eternal superiority in the world. the ruling elites of Fallow Fields assumed that these halcyon days would last forever. they were wrong. In the absence of his exalted highness, the majestic emperor of the realms, dominions, colonies and commonwealth of Greater Fallowfields, the narrator, an absolute amateur without any experience but for a liberal education, has been left to run the affairs of state, such as they are, along with Brambling (chancellor of the exchequer), Garganey (postmaster general), Whimbrel (astronomer royal), Sanderling (comptroller for the admiralty), Dotterel (suveryor of the imperial works), Wryneck (pellitory-of-the-wall), and Smew (librarian-in-chief). With very little actual work to do, they are involved in never-ending discussions and wrangling over procedure. Their characters are quite distinguishable one from another but it is clear that they are different faces of a single culture, perhaps inculcated in obscure boarding schools somewhere in GFF. This is a cosy, though unproductive life, until a gang of men from a neighbouring principality are discovered building a railway headed straight for the emperor’s court.

Scoffers are a humourless, grim lot. Having been recruited or semi-kidnapped into the relentless and capital intensive Scoffer economy, formerly privileged GFFers pine for the good old days. It looks like the COS will suck GFF dry of labour, capital and its symbols of imperial pride. But the Scoffers, mysteriously fearful of a threat to themselves from the West, haven’t counted on the mental agility of GFF, born out of a culture of Managing Things. In order that things remain the same everything had to change.

Wordsworth, in the essay “Supplementary to the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads”, reminds us that “every author, as far as he is great and at the same time original, has had the task of creating the taste by which he is to be enjoyed: so has it been, so will it continue to be.” With A Cruel Bird Came to the Nest and Looked In, his seventh novel, Magnus Mills continues the apparently never-ending task of teaching readers how to enjoy him.

It’s quite a job. Because, we should admit it, Mills is not always an easy writer to enjoy. He’s an easy writer to admire, of course, but that’s different. We might admire Beckett’s novels, but we don’t necessarily enjoy them. Do we? Mills is admirable in the same way that Beckett is admirable. He has the courage of his convictions. Which can make him seem sometimes odd, cold, and displeasing, with a deficit of affect, though perhaps “dry” would be a better word than “cold”. Mills once remarked in an interview: “I can’t tell which bits are funny. I just put dry things in.” His work occupies the very outermost regions, the semi-desert distant steppes of what we usually think of as the declared realm of the novel, which is why he is sometimes compared to Beckett, or to Kafka, or Calvino, outliers all, though in A Cruel Bird he comes closest in fact to the territory of another great literary outsider, Mervyn Peake.

One might go so far as to argue, on the evidence of the latest novel, that Mills is constructing his own vast, sprawling Gormenghast, adding towers and escarpments to his extraordinary earldom, brick by brick, and book by book. All Quiet on the Orient Express (1999) was a recapitulation of the themes in his Booker-nominated first novel, The Restraint of Beasts (1998). And The Scheme for Full Employment (2003), Explorers of the New Century (2005), and The Maintenance of Headway (2009) have played basically the same delightful games and tunes around and about the nature of work, and about organisations, and about human systems. Fantasy literature is one way of describing it, as long as your definition of fantasy literature includes not only Peake, but also Tristram Shandy, the work of Bruno Schulz, and Gombrowicz’s Ferdyduke.

Mills has not only his persistent themes, but also his persistent kinds of characters, with whom he perpetually tinkers: there is usually a naive narrator, caught up in some sort of pointless toil with a small group of earnest eccentrics who talk to each other continually at cross-purposes. His consistency of purpose as an author might be described negatively as a kind of pathology, a form of self-plagiarism almost, or it might, on the other hand, be praised as a form of profound attention, and a sign of true greatness. It all depends on the quality of the tinkering. And the nature of the work being tinkered with.

Fortunately, A Cruel Bird is as utterly odd, as endearing and as disturbing a book as anything that has come before. The novel’s unnamed narrator is the principal composer to the imperial court of a place called Greater Fallowfields, which bears about as much and as little resemblance to anywhere in the actual world as any of Mills’ places and locations – it is the world, but the world abridged, stripped and removed of irrelevant detail. The concert hall, for example, the most famous landmark in Fallowfields, and known as the “cake”, is described in deliciously vague fairy-tale terms. “Constructed in the days when the empire was at its zenith, the cake was built from a very rare kind of stone, quarried to specification in a faraway land and ferried home in ships.”

“It’s all jumbled and disorganised,” remarks the narrator on the empire of Fallowfields, “we have a vast hierarchy with serfs at the bottom and the emperor at the top, but in between there exists a pecking order that’s vague and unfathomable to say the least.” The wonderful thing about the outlandish world of Magnus Mills is that it always sounds familiar.

A Cruel Bird Came to The Nest and Looked In – Magnus Mills
I’d heard people talking about Magnus Mills a long time before I read any of his books. A typical conversation would go:

‘I’ve just finished the new Magnus Mills’
‘Oh, right. What happened in it?’
‘Nothing at all’.

It’s hard to understand how a man can forge such an impressive literary career on the basis of nothing at all happened, until you read one of his novels that is. Not for him, plot twists, explosions or conspiracy theories. Instead, each of his books takes us into a Beckettian world of understatement and mordant humour – the only disappointment is that they are over so soon.

His latest novel is a case in point. The opening passage, a roll-call of the astronomer royal, comptroller of the admiralty, ‘pellitory-of-the-wall’ and more, is typical of the way Mills presents Gormenghast style fantasy in a totally deadpan tone. The author is immediately presented with a cast of characters striving to behave in an everyday manner, but with no clear idea of their ultimate goals, and insufficient resources. This sums up Mills’ worldview entirely, as he takes the confused inefficieny of the minor bureaucrat to darkly comic extremes.

Mills rarely gives a precise geographical location for his novels, and here the ‘action’ is based in the Empire of Greater Fallowfields. The emporer is missing, and his court are sleepwalking into a crisis, unable to think innovatively, react to their new situation, or display any level of carpe diem spirit. This is a subversion of traditional narrative history – rather than an empire falling in battle, or through a disaster, it is gradually and painlessly being eroded. You sense that not even the officers are truly sad to see it go.

The threat faced by the maritime Empire is represented by the arrival of the Railway, linking them to the mercantile new City of Scoffers. The Scoffers send recruiting parties to lure the Empire’s workforce away, and soon even the high officials are transported from the court.

Mills uses the later stages of the novel to demonstrate his dexterity as an author; The City of Scoffers is a Kafkaesque world, although his subtle humour remains present. Modernisation is represented by clocks and railways (the passage of time has always been a preoccupation for Mills, mainly bus timetables). He plays with the reader, offering hints that the book will become a satire on Iraq, a political commentary, a holocaust allegory or a reworking of 1984, but we are only offered glimpses of each. Typically deadpan, Mills remains inscrutable to the last, and as always, leaves you wanting more.


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