Archive for the ‘Essays’ Category

Summer Reading Part 5: Magnus Mills

August 31, 2010

While I tend to read mostly American novels, this summer I also had a brief visit in Britland, with Magnus Mills and Kazuo Ishiguro in defence of the queen. In Magnus Mills’ case, I’ve now read all his books, so there is not much more I can do than to wait for the next one, should he choose to continue his literary career. Luckily, in the case of Kazuo Ishiguro, there are still two of his novels that I have not read. So there is something to look forward to… Here are some thought about Magnus Mills and a bit about his final novel, The Maintenance of headway.

Mills’ literary debut, The Restraint of Beasts, was nominated (or short listed, as they call it) for the Booker Prize and Whitbread Award (two of Britain’s most prestigious literary prizes) and even managed to win praise from Thomas Pynchon, a man who customarily likes to remain invisible outside his books.

Mills worked as a fence builder in Scotland for some 6 or 7 years before moving to London to become a bus driver. The success of The Restraint of Beasts allowed him to focus on his writing career for a while, but soon bored, he took a job driving vans. In the meantime he wrote more novels and two extremely thin collections of short stories. After the van business fell apart, he returned to his old job as bus driver, which he still does, considering writing a hobby.

Already in The Restraint of Beasts, we are introduced to Mills’ particular deadpan style. Comparisons have been made to Kafka and Samuel Beckett, but Mills seems his own creature. For one thing, he is much funnier than these. While there certainly are similarities, there is enough of a difference to regard his writing on its own merits. Beckett’s and Kafka’s writings are mostly absurdist, presenting an exaggerated reality which, while allegorically rich and interesting, is still recognizable as not real, to use an oxymoron. Mill’s tales have tended to be closer to reality, with the artistic and estranging effect lying in language itself and in how people react to everyday occurrences.

The absurd in Mills’ stories needs no talking insects to be felt. Neither are the characters living on garbage heaps, but tend to be as normal as can be, preferring a trip to the pub; the pub being the apex of social interaction, of your claim to be a member of society. All of Mills’ characters are social creatures, or wanting to be. The rules of social conventions (one of them language, another social interaction, a third work ethics), however, are examined by presenting them as unbreakable, and with sometimes fatal consequences for the unlucky few who manages to get a convention wrong.

At the release of his debut novel, much ado was made about his being a “writing bus driver”. Reading these articles today, I feel that they can’t quite hiding a certain condescending tone, as if having a normal, blue collar job would be inconsistent with having literary talent, even preclude it. Oh, well.

The Restraint of Beasts’ narrator is put in charge of two ruffians as they roam the countryside building fences for a Scottish company. Tam and Richie, as they are called, are sceptical to rules, preferring to do things their own way and in their own tempo. The end of any good working day is an opportunity to down a significant number of beers, and this, perhaps, is as worthwhile a goal as any. At least Tam and Richie feel so, and they accept begrudgingly the company of their new foreman, our narrator, in their alcohol filled sojourns. This would all be well and good were it not for their unfortunate habit to kill a number of people along the way, all by accident, mind. The matter-of-factness of these killings is contrasted by the extreme seriousness of the workers’ seemingly mundane and at times meaningless tasks: “The high-tension fence is the way forward”, he was saying. “The prospects of the company depend on it.” Dead bodies piling up or no, the rules have to be followed, and it is up to our narrator to instil these in his two underlings/partners. However, the two week trip to install a new fencing system in England might be fraught with unknown horrors, or perhaps it is just business as usual after all.

All Mills’ books work as well as they do because of the authorial voice he has found. It can’t have come easily. He spent several years working on his first book, rewriting and polishing it until ready for publication, and it must have been a challenge to get the tone so right. If I were to be critical, I’d have to comment that he has kept to this same voice through all his novels. The subject matter and theme might be slightly different, but the voice and mannerisms of the characters remain practically unchanged.

All the novels deal with persons who have no compulsion to rock the boat, so to speak, but through unfortunate circumstances – or just laziness – find themselves in situations imposed on them by outside forces, often of a systematic nature, often a result of the work they do. The seemingly mundane is never just that, or is it? In many ways, this uncertainty facilitates reading his stories as fables, or allegories; the reader can’t help but look for a meaning beyond what is described, as what is narrated should be impossible to write good literature about. Still, there is no doubt that the novels are enrapturing, to the point of almost being thrillers.

Mills catches the Englishness of the English language so well that we come to see how everyday phrases might hide a severe and possibly gruesome reality, or vice versa; that everyday actions are given an importance well above their station and right. This is part of why the novels are very funny – the disproportioned seriousness or mundanity of language itself (there just must exist a thesis out there called the mundanity of modernity, or some such…) – and it must indeed be very difficult for a translator to transfer, or transmit, the particular English quality of the dialogue.

One of Mills’ literary tricks is to present his worlds so close to the actual world that we might be fooled into accepting them. However, there is always something not quite right, some rule we are never told about, something that separates his fictional worlds from reality as we “know” it. Of course, this might be suggested of the real world as well, that there is some crucial information about it that we are missing… Anyhow, this unknown factor, the element we can’t quite grasp with our understanding, is exactly what gives his novels their tension, and perhaps even their meaning.

In The Scheme for Full Employment, it is the meaning of the titular scheme that propels our attention, if not the narrative itself: Why are they doing this? But rather than be content to be a kind of working class existentialism, Mills’s description of the basic action makes it so recognizable, that when the results become clear, the reader is torn between existentialist horror and firstclass mirth. (As an aside, I can’t remember ever having laughed so often while reading a novel).

In Mills’ perhaps most clearly allegorical novel, Explorers of the New Century, we are never sure exactly what anyone are actually doing, with what, where and why. Two groups are racing towards the North (Pole?), as a parody of Amundsen and Scott, with the hope of finding there a solution to “the one enduring problem; namely the question of the mules”. The tale itself is of the hardships you would expect of any arctic exploration, except that if the mules are not mules, we can’t really trust whether other words might not also be euphemistic.

I wasn’t all that keen on Explorers of the New Century when I first read it, feeling that Mills’ language repeated itself a bit too much. In hindsight, however, I suspect it might be his best, as the tale is rather more complicated than a first reading would allow for. The book also seems to me to say something worthwhile about the world we do live in; the allegory is so certainly there that the novel definitely moves away from the mundane and takes on real, actual meanings. While also containing the now expected comedic Millsian touches, Explorers… is by far the darkest of his novels and finally attains real tragedy in its resolution.

After this lengthy introduction, I guess it is inevitable that the actual subject of this post will be a bit anticlimactic. While continuing driving his bus route, Mills used about four years to write his latest novel: The Maintenance of Headway. It is a relatively short book, in which Mills again can utilize his first hand knowledge of the milieu he has chosen as his subject matter: Buses. As mentioned, his earlier stint as a fence builder served him well in his debut novel, and likewise his experience as a van driver in The Scheme for Full Employment. This time he writes about the profession evidently closest to his heart, so I suspected a similar existentialist exposé of the bus driving business as he had done in his earlier “profession novels”.

While The Maintenance of Headway certainly is funny at times, and is populated with the typical Mills characters who spout regulatory gibberish on behalf of a system they don’t really understand, in this case I was left cold. Perhaps Mills was too close to the story, but I don’t think this explains my feeling of near indifference to the proceedings. Rather, his customary tropes and turns of phrases finally seemed tired and lacking the newness they once had, as if Mills’ effort this time was a bit half-hearted. Also, I think Mills has educated us much in the absurdity of transportation schemes already, to the point of making this latest novel something of a superfluous entity. And, not least, I think we all already feel – and know – that the system behind buses and the way the inner-city transport sector adheres to time tables and its customers, contains elements of political and economical insanity. We don’t really need Mills to tell us that there are sinister forces behind the market’s demands for effectivity, nor how this will have consequences further down the ladder.

Mills is indeed succinct when he shows us how readily people can step into new roles, here almost equalling a move from victim to tormentor. Finally this is where the novel approaches greatness, but it is too little too late. The novel is mildly entertaining, and the final, while advertised, comes off as satisfying. I can’t, though, recommend it wholeheartedly. Maybe if you have never read a Mills book before, The Maintenance of Headway will seem new and revealing of the absurdity of our daily working lives.

I enjoyed the book, by all means, but not unreservedly and not without a tint of disappointment. Magnus Mills is capable of more and better. Perhaps, after all, a break from his everyday job, if only for half a year, would serve him well. At least he would be able to use his imagination rather than draw upon immediate experience (the two, though, are not mutually exclusive, by no means…). Of course, then he runs the risk of losing some of the realism of his “realsurdist”(TM) working class fiction. By now, however, just that realism seems to stand in the way of Mills’ expanding his literary universe, even being so familiar to him that he is showing signs of losing the spark that was so present in his earlier novels.

Henry Darger

June 7, 2008

When the landlord, Nathan Lerner, one March day in 1973 opened the door of the tenant who had lived there as long as Nathan could remember, his only idea was to get rid of all the junk he assumed had accumulated during the long and lonely years since the tenant first had made the room his home. Henry Darger was his name. A short while ago he had gotten ill and admitted to one of Chicago’s catholic missions. He was 82 years old. He had no family, no friends. He was a very religious man. Few had been in his room since he moved to the small tenement building some time in 1932. He kept to himself.

Henry was born in 1892, probably in April. His mother died in labour four years later, and he never got to see his sister, who was adopted. Maybe that’s why he later kept away from women. One of them could be his sister.

His father, an easygoing tailor, wasn’t capable of taking care of little Henry. He was placed in an orphanage at the age of eight. His father died a few years later.

Henry took a substantial interest in the weather. He hated one of his fellow pupils, John Manley, and he played the clown, making strange noises. He got the nickname “Crazy”. The teachers were just as bad as the pupils. Henry quarrelled often with them about facts of the civil war. Henry knew how many had died in each and every skirmish and battle. Many years later he was to say about his teachers that they were “dust beneath my feet”.

At the orphanage he eventually was diagnosed as mentally ill. “Little Henry does not have his heart in the right place”, a doctor wrote. Consequently, he was sent to the Illinois Home for Feeble Minded Children. “Me, a retard! I knew more than the whole bunch of them”, he later wrote in his diary. Henry tried to run away several times, but not untill he was 17 were his efforts crowned with success, and he escaped. He made it back to Chicago and took the odd job here and there. In 1913 he saw “The Easter Tornado” completely eradicate the small township of Countybrown, Illinois.

As USA got deeper into the first world war, Henry was drafted. He was 25 years old and not unwilling. A few months later, in December 1917, he was honorably discharged. Physically and mentally unfit for duty, said the papers. Henry was furious. He needed a war, he needed his own war.

Fiftyfive years passed. The gay and roaring twenties turned into the sad but no less roaring thirties. A new world war did not affect him. He had his own war on his mind. No one paid much attention to him. If you looked into his eyes, what would you see? He took a job washing dishes, he sold ice cream, he worked as a janitor at a catholic hospital. He worked 14 hours a day and every day he went to mass. He slept very little.

His landlord, who bought the building in 1956, chose to be lenient with the tenant that came with the deed. Whether in the night sounds came from his appartment, whether he did not always pay his rent, Henry stayed on. Nathan Lerner was involved in the artscene of Chicago, and he encouraged a certain kind of bohemian behaviour among his tenants. One time he arranged a birthdaycelebration for Henry, but the party did not move into Henry’s room.

In 1973 Henry had seen enough of the century. He had not participated in it. After having been moved to the Mission, he lost both the energy and the will to live. The overcrowded single room, there, on the fifth floor of 851 Webster Avenue, had been his life. Nathan realized that Henry would never return, and opened the door to what he had assumed would be an enormous solitude. He was helped by a neighbour, David Berglund, and together they waded through quite a bit of flotsam and some jetsam, multitudes of seemingly random belongings.

They started by throwing two full loads into a container. Thousands of meters of twine, gathered and tied together, who knows from which back alleys, patiently fished from what number of gutters? Bottles and tools for a purpose only known in Henry’s head. The only space to sit, a broken wooden chair in the middle of the room. Crucifixes and small statues of the virgin Mary, wherever one looked. The walls completely covered with newspaper clippings about incidents and events very few would like to remember. From a bottomless pile an odd shape drew Davids attention. He pulled up an enormous book, bound by hand. It was too big to open inside the room. Judging by its size, it was written for or by a giant.

The work of more than forty years revealed itself between the covers. Parchment and paper glued together into huge ledgers, long rolls of paper, canvases unheard of and never seen by unfamiliar eyes. Paintings, drawings, collages, watercolours. The colours spectacular, the motives no less; genuine and disturbing. Innocence and horror side by side. Little girls, often naked or partly undressed, with guns or rifles in hand, or sometimes without guns, some with a butterfly’s wings, others with curved horns on their foreheads. Most of them equipped with small children’s penises. Maybe Henry was inspired by the saintly paintings of baby Jesus, or maybe he was unfamiliar with any other anatomy than his own. Demons, soldiers, blood and lots and lots of bad weather further filled the primitive canvases. Everything put together with all the care in this or any world.

Lerner, who was a connoiseur of art, immediately realized that this had value. I don’t think he thought about money, not then. When Henry died, Lerner had the rights to everything in the room. It turned out that the pictures were not all. They were merely illustrations to the longest work of fiction we know about. Henry’s closely written magnum opus consisted of 15145 pages of sometimes joy, most times rage. The title was not short neither: “The Story of the Vivian Girls in What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion”.

The satanic Glandelians have proclaimed war on their catholic neighbours and they torture and mutilate millions, among whom we find the seven princesses known as the Vivian-sisters. However, the evil general of the Glandelians, John Manley, is constantly being opposed by giant dragonlike creatures known as Blengians and the brave and valorous captain Henry Darger. Captain Darger saves the girls from certain destruction and delivers them from harm. Countless battles and further cruelties ensue. Darger is sometimes on the side of good, sometimes he is bad. Henry wrote two endings to his tale, if tale it can be called. In one, christianity and the Vivian-sisters are victorious. The other end witnessed the defeat of the girls and the world thrown into godlessness.

“The author writes the scene in this volume as if he had experienced them himself”, Henry wrote in the foreword to one of the volumes. Maybe this is the key to understand his production, although there might be better words for what he left than production. For Henry this was not art, or something he wished to communicate to the world. It was not a construction of reality, but reality itself. This was how he survived those years, all his years. He existed only while creating. Or, to put it another way: He was what he created. In an eternal dialogue with God, he raged and discussed His Creation. Who can say who won that discussion? Who can say he has tried as hard?

No one has read the work entire, all the 13 volumes that Henry started sometime after 1910. The psychiatrist and biographer John MacGregor used 12 years to study Darger’s world, but not even he could read through it all. Apart from his primary work, Henry wrote a sequel of well over 8000 pages. He also wrote an autobiography, of which the first 206 pages are dedicated to his childhood and the remaining 4878 describe an imaginary tornado he baptized “Sweety Pie”. And on top of this he wrote his diary and random notes in which he general chose to write about the weather.

If it hadn’t been for his output as a painter, Darger would probably have remained a mere curiousity, and not even much of that. When his writings, though, are seen in connection to his pictures, I think we can glance a portrait of a human life lived outside society, with other thoughts than our own, with other worlds, worlds that we can’t claim to dream up even in our most fervent and wonderful nights, and, at times, terrible. His pictures are truly beautiful. Some of them are frightening. Many of them will give offence to those that seek offence. They are different and they are not made for us or our judgement, but for Henry himself. Maybe that’s why they mean something, maybe that’s why they are important.

These days, Henry Darger is mostly known as perhaps the foremost practitioner of so-called Outsider Art. The Art Brut exhibition in Lausanne own more than 20 of his pictures. The American Folk Art– collection of New York can claim most of the rest of his work, including all the written material. They opened their Henry Darger Study Centre in 2002. A documentary film about him has been made, as well as a biography and several books about his art.

When his neighbour, David Berglund, visited Henry in the retirement home a week before his death, he mentioned to the pale and ill figure what they had found in his room. Henry looked unspeakably sad. “It’s too late now. It belongs to Mr. Lerner”, he said.

Natalie Merchant: Henry Darger