THE RESTRAINT OF BEASTS (1998) by Magnus Mills

‘A demented, deadpan comic wonder’ – Thomas Pynchon

First published in 1998, this debut novel from Magnus Mills drew on his seven years of experience in the field of high tensile steel fencing, the title referring literally to the containment of cattle – though metaphorically of course it aims for something a little broader in terms of significance. The unnamed narrator is the newly made foreman on a work crew for a company in Scotland – he is tasked, somewhat to his displeasure and unease, with finishing a fence there and then with taking his two unwilling charges – Tam and Richie – to England for a job that will probably take weeks – or perhaps even longer … Just before leaving there is an absurd accident on the job, one that leaves the client very dead.

“Tam’s just accidentally killed Mr McCrindle”, I explained.

The three men take this death very easily in their stride and there is no shock, no hand-wringing, no despair, not even any regret –  they just immediately decide to bury the body on the site of the job and then move on to the next one. They do put a marker down, even though no one will know what it represents. A little later the narrator does have a slight qualm though, asking the others if they were sure the man was dead before they buried him …

“He was dead, wasn’t he?”
“I’m sure he was”, said Tam.
“What about his sheep?”
“They’ll be alright.”

We assume that the narrator, who is an Englishman and so a bit of an outsider anyway, will be able to provide some insight into the small cast of characters standing as he does slightly outside of their circle – but it soon becomes clear that he is only slightly less under-resourced than the other two. Yes, he is a bit more organised and a bit more motivated, but he lacks experience and exercises very little in the way of judgement as they make their way to Upper Bowland to build more fences. It’s not long before there is yet another work-related fatality, then the rigid and intimidating boss Donald turns up unexpectedly, and then another death ensues, not that this phases the protagonists one bit. Having been shown the work that they are expected to undertake, they spend most of the time desperate to get away to the local pub. Tam and Riche are essentially children, with enough instinct and low cunning for the purposes of self-preservation, but not much else. It is the narrator, back on his home turf more or less, who manages to get to know the pub landlord and even manages to chat up one of the local girls there, though after spending the night together she says, inevitably inviting both crude similes and a typical lack of understanding in the narrator:

“I’m not a fence post, you know.”

The book follows the journey of the three men down south in a broken down camper van, with Tam and Richie hating the fact that they are having to leave Scotland and their lives of constant drinking, smoking and chronic lack of  money as a result. But it’s not that they otherwise have much to look forward to. They have virtually no expectations and no aspirations beyond modelling themselves on heavy metal icons with their long hair and cowboy boots, all the while living in squalid conditions in the clapped out caravan, unable to control their destiny. Richie is buying an electric guitar on an installment plan and that is about all he has to look forward to – and pointedly, even this is taken away from him at the end.

Tam doesn’t even have that apparently though it is hard to tell as we no know next to nothing of their interior lives. As the book progresses, we see the narrator settle more and more into a seemingly inescapable pattern of working all day, drinking, sleeping and then starting again and increasingly finding himself surrounded by those who seem to have a vested interest in ensuring that this continues. This is emphasised by the final part of the book in which the men go back to Scotland to start installing electrified fences that are, for some reason, high enough even to contain people. It seems that the deaths the men accumulated along the way may will have to be paid for after all …

The absurdist, blackly comic tone is one that will be familiar to fans of such authors as Ionesco and Ian McEwan for instance though it has particular affinities with the work of modernist writer Paul Auster, most obviously The Music of Chance (1990), in which its main characters, after losing a bet, spend most of the narrative building a wall that no one will ever see. In these novels the theme revolves around concepts of freedom and imprisonment, whether it be simply through social circumstances or the kinds not imposed from outside but rather the constrictions we create for ourselves by not being prepared to take charge of our own destiny and take responsibility for our actions. By always abrogating the decision-making process to others, Mills’ novel makes it clear that for his trio of protaginists ‘work’ has become little more than a form of semi-consensual slavery. But this makes the book sound heavy-handed and it is in fact a highly ironic and original black comedy that plays like a Noir-ish tale of taciturn drifters that get involved in low-level criminality and several deaths, though these prove largely incidental.

This is a compact book made up of small details that build up a funny and exasperating picture of modern-day living and working that many will find wryly amusing and surprisingly close to home despite the outwardly unusual circumstances it depicts.

***** (3 fedora tips out of 5)

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