Thursday, May 01, 2003
Books: Road to nowhere
By John Ziebell
The Scheme for Full Employment, the new novel from former London bus driver Magnus Mills, opens with some curious exhibits--a minimalist road map and a fairly oblique sample of a daily duty roster--and an elegy of sorts in the brief introduction that follows them.
"We can't lay the guilt on anyone but ourselves," the book's unnamed narrator says in his apologia. "The Scheme was created for us, and it was we who finally brought it down."
The Scheme for Full Employment is an entity whose army of neatly uniformed drivers travel metropolitan thoroughfares in identical and instantly recognizable delivery vans--like, say, UPS. The underpinnings of The Scheme, however, aren't made explicit until well into the novel. Imagine that UPS didn't deliver packages and paychecks and eBay purchases. Say those proprietary brown vans transported nothing but spare parts--spare parts for proprietary brown vans. That's The Scheme; a vast vehicular fleet transporting the components of their familiars, shifting the same supply of extra parts endlessly among an infinite array of warehouses.
"We were well paid; we were immune to commercial fluctuation; the job itself was a cinch. We merely had to drive a van between A, B and C, and our continued employment was guaranteed."
But driving isn't everything. There are rules to follow and schedules to maintain; even the disbursement of in-house gossip is strictly heirarchized. Since leaving early is prohibited, dodging supervisors has become an art form. The sight of Scheme drivers parked along the roadsides for their afternoon naps is common. George, an assistant driver--one employee can't conceivably operate a van carrying nothing nowhere--even has a full-time sideline of delivering cakes for his girlfriend. Welcome to industry at its most entropic.
"There's a difference between full employment and being fully employed," the narrator explains to a new hire at one point. "There is a lot of spare capacity in The Scheme, but it's better for people to be paid to do very little than have no job at all, isn't it?"
Like every perfect world, the Scheme offers its privileged membership the first chance to screw things up. The apple of desire in this garden is the "early swerve"--a supervisory signature that lets the fortunate driver leave his route early, in theory because there's not time to add another stop to the route. Once some drivers make a habit of that activity, the alternative view comes into play; the "flat-dayers" insist that failing to work a full eight hours is a virus that's eating into the infrastructure of The Scheme, since the only reason for its existence is to keep employees occupied all day. The schism that threatens to divide the enterprise is religious in its fervor, and political maneuvering intermingles with attempts by each side to gain and hold moral high ground.
The story is clearly meant as an allegory, and while the representation is often hilarious, its intent remains unclear. The Scheme is a relic of 1970s England that, according to one of the new administrative breed, should disappear in the manner of "those other failed social experiments, like public transport, school dinners and municipal orchestras." Okay; so exactly whose political will--or lack of it--is coming under satiric consideration? I'm not sure; maybe the tale is simply a contemporary Erewhon, as rescripted for our entertainment by Franz Kafka and Matt Groening.
The book does most things well, but there are a few potholes along the way. Mills is the master of blue-collar angst, unparalleled at delineating not only the deadly banality of unvarying routine but the contradictory dread of anything that would upset it--sudden and brilliantly unexpected violence in The Restraint of Beasts, or the mere appearance of a woman in Three to See the King. In The Scheme, the introduction of Joyce, a female boss, is rich with promise but never pays off. Nor do a number of plot ancillaries--the recurring tangential stuff that might build cumulative weight in The Brothers Karamazov but just feels unfinished in a book this slender. There also seems to be less at stake in this narrative, which lacks the edge of unmitigated tension and unease that Mills developed so well in previous works. Still, Mills is smart and funny and well worth reading, and the book's a real value--a new hardcover for less than twenty bucks.