Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Maintenance of Headway (Magnus Mills)

Cover picture of The Maintenance of Headway by Magnus Mills

Magnus Mills’ novels are an acquired taste. Like a dark chocolate that leaves a lasting sensation on your tongue. His latest tome – The Maintenance of Headway – is a welcome publication, since it’s been a couple of years since I read Explorers of the New Century and ages since the previous ones.

Last time I summed up Mills’ taste, saying:

At you turn the first few pages of any of his novels, it feels like you are reading a terribly simple story. And then, slowly, a sense of unease creeps across you, as dark and subtle twists and lapses in normality are introduced into the story. Perversion pervades (distortion, not sexual).

In his latest story, Mills returns to transport. As is traditional, he eeks out the information very slowly. It’s a couple of pages in before you realise that the first person narrator is a bus driver, page 19 before the Board of Transport is mentioned for the first time, and only on page 20 that the title is explained by one of the other drivers:

“the maintenance of headway [is] the notion that a fixed interval between buses on a regular service can be attained and adhered to.”

Which leads to his observation that

“People aren’t important, only bus movements.”

It’s classic Mills. A book about rules, and the people who set and police them. A book about pettiness. Sometimes even a parable about anti-pragmatism.

And yet there’s more. While Mills has covered transport before in The Scheme for Full Employment, this time he extends the metaphor and moves it up a level with the examination of corporate objectives and management mandates, looking at how the different workers cope with seemingly sensible/stupid policies, and how poachers can turn gamekeepers as they are promoted from bus driver to inspector.

If anything, it’s not as deeply dark as his previous work. There’s either light at the end of Mills’ tunnel or I’m particularly tired and weary from work these days! At 152 pages, it’s a short read, and definitely not as excruciatingly depressing as I was expecting. Which was nice change since no doubt the next book will be a tense one to make up for it!

As always, strongly recommended. And do check out John Self’s more in-depth review over at The Asylum.

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