Tuesday, 25 May 2010

The Restraint of Beasts - Magnus Mills

Quite honestly, I think I missed something here. Don't get me wrong: I didn't dislike it, but I somehow expected more.

Anyway, before getting into that, the background: Booker-nominated (among other fancy prizes) first novel by Magnus Mills, loosely (I hope) drawing on his actual experiences building high-tensile (not, as the narrator will not hesitate to point out, high-tension) fences. In the book, y'see, a deadpan Englishman is made the foreman of two inept, lazy Scottish fence-builders, Tam and Richie. After some initial work in Scotland, fixing Tam and Richie's previous piece of shoddy work, the trio are squashed into a caravan and sent to England, where they build more fences, and bump into the sinister, faintly mysterious Hall Brothers. Things, expected and unexpected, happen, an elaborate net of themes and hints are set up, and then it all ends, abruptly, with a lingering sense that there's a clever interpretation that will make it all neat, logical and beautiful, if only you could think of what it was.

Yes, the ending is deeply unsatisfying, because you spend half a book picking up ominous portents and possibilities, none of which are ever explored. This is partly the point - the book's about the unsatisfying, repetitious, meaningless nature of a lot of what we do with our lives. Directed by forces we can't understand (Donald, the increasingly psychotic and obsessive boss of the fencing company), we do the same dreary tasks (digging holes, stretching wires, moving materials) again and again, punctuated by the same set of pointless leisure activities (going to the pub, bizarre, incomprehensible interaction with other people) until we die, and are swiftly shoved out the way and forgotten. Not an entirely cheerful moral, it has to be said.

This is all accompanied by prose that matches the themes, and I think this is where my real problem with the book kicks in. I like luscious, extravagant, indulgent prose, with wandering sentences and atmospheric descriptions. The Restraint of Beasts follows an entirely different path: the sentences are short, the descriptions technical and basic, the dialogue brief, the narrative utterly deadpan. The style is part of the effect, though, and in that sense it's one of the novel's strengths: it's about repetition and boredom, and the style reflects that. Also, since it's in the first person, doing anything else would completely change the character of the narrator.

And character is something that's done consistently well, whether it's the narrator, Tam and Richie, or any of the bizarre extras, nearly all of whom are in some way deranged and quite often drunk. This is all done sparely and brilliantly: there's no over-long explanation of what someone is like and why - they just are. You pick up on the characters' traits, mannerisms and habits almost without noticing, as their quirks are rolled out in a few lines of dialogue, or a couple of brief descriptions of what they're doing.

The prose also has genuinely hilarious moments that leap out at you, entirely without warning. There were a couple of times when I managed to scare people on the tube with bursts of laughter. The comedy isn't signposted, and doesn't take the form of jokes. Instead, the humour is in the narrator's apparent (or ironic) obliviousness to sudden absurdities - he treats bizarre occurrences (which I shall not give away) in exactly the same way as hammering in a fence post. These moments are great fun, but the downside is that if you settle too deeply into the bland prose you can miss them entirely. Again, this fits the philosophy: life is ridiculous and amusing, but we don't always notice it, and we can't expect everything to have a neat reason and an explanation.

Cleverly done, then, but unsatisfying, and that's my issue with the book as a whole. Although the characters are neatly constructed, it makes a fair absurdist point, and there are some magnificently amusing set-pieces, I was still disappointed. The humour was fairly sporadic, and sometimes perhaps just too low-key for my simple mind. This, combined with the terse prose and the unresolved ending, left me sadly disappointed with the whole affair. I can see why some would love it, and I can understand the praise, but I'm just not the right reader. It's not you, Magnus, it's me.

An aside on this pseudo-reviewing lark: I'm not being specific enough. I need to get stuck into quotations and detailed comments on scenes. I need to give examples of where I think things are done well or badly. Yet this also needs to be done without giving anything away. It's a difficult little exercise, this. Still, I think I'm improving: this one is a bit more concise and structured than the last few.


  1. To "get" a tale like this it helps to grow up in a certain kind of environment. Notice how various characters die along the way. How their bodies are dispensed with: didn't that strike you as odd? "So were they really dead?"--is a question I think you forgot to ask. Then, at the end, it's prison time. Why? Well, let's start with this first "dead" person, or this murdered person, or whatever this person is. So now you're locked up, can't go to the pub, have to eat their food, and this because you killed a lot of people? Yeah, you working class person, you really didn't kill anybody, so why does it seem like you're in prison?

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