When I was younger, it used to drive me mad when friends (or, more often, family members) would knock music by artists I loved, saying: “All their songs sound the same.” What they meant, I thought, was that their songs don’t sound like anyone else. So it is with Magnus Mills: all his books sound the same, in a sense, because they don’t sound like anyone else.
A Cruel Bird Came to the Nest and Looked In, therefore, is in a sense business as usual for Mills. It places us in the usual nonspecific but familiar setting, and gives us the unnamed narrator, the bluff blank dialogue, the sense of circularity, and expectations of frustrated progress (both the characters’ and the reader’s). What we also get is Mills’s trademark representation of the world of work and labour, which has occupied so many of his novels. He is most interesting when approaching it at an angle rather than head-on. All Quiet on the Orient Express, where a man “spills a tin of green paint and thereby condemns himself to death”, for example, is a chewier stew than the more directly work-related Scheme for Full Employment or Mills’s last novel, The Maintenance of Headway. With A Cruel Bird Came to the Nest and Looked In, the oblique title confirms that we are in sideways territory again, and sure enough, the result is one of Mills’s most ambitious and satisfying confections.
Our hero – why not call him that? – is a naïf finding his way: the rules of the world are explained to the reader as he discovers them. This is not to say that the reader ends up enlightened, or running ahead of the narrator: correspondences in literature and history suggest themselves, but remain inchoate. The Empire of Greater Fallowfields, for example, where the book is set, looks very like Britain (it has “the only flag that could be flown upside-down without anybody noticing”), or rather like a cross between a fairytale reading and a media interpretation of it. People appointed to high office have no idea what they are doing, there is a general loss of purpose, like in Vonnegut’s Slapstick, where people “had to believe all their lives that they were perhaps sent to the wrong Universe, since no one has ever bid them welcome or given them anything to do.” Now that they have been given something to do – Postmaster General, Astronomer Royal, Pellitory-of-the-Wall – the characters are defined, literally and psychologically, by their roles. Their personalities are not ruled by the usual qualities in fiction: ambition, envy, passion; instead we get humanity writ small: pedantry, bossiness, passive-aggressive needling. When one complains about unfair treatment, another points out that “unfairness is what keeps the world going round.”
The narrator’s role is Principal Composer to the Imperial Court. He takes up residence in the ‘cake’, the building where the orchestra practises and the conductor Greylag composes music which will be credited to the Principal Composer. He may not know much about music, but our man at least knows more about the stars than the new Astronomer Royal (“They’re all fixed, are they? Well, that’s definitely a fact worth knowing. Thank you”), who can’t even get his telescope to work – though he will once he finds a use for the universal sixpence stipend which none of the court officials is otherwise able to spend. Meanwhile, they are treated with surly compliance by the workers – “serfs” – of Greater Fallowfields, and they are required to rehearse a play which has parallels simultaneously with Macbeth and with their own predicament. Petty bureaucracy is never far from hand: “It’s treasonous to interfere with the postal service,” says Wryneck to Garganey (all the names are like that). “Even to make improvements?” “I’m afraid so.”
Analogues and connections spring up, but scatter as the mind settles on them. Is it a parallel for Nazi Germany, or postwar Germany, or the drifting United Kingdom? The people of Greater Fallowfields believe that the world envies them, when in fact it is passing them by while they remain caught up in their own affairs. They take notice only when the outside world becomes a threat as a neighbouring country builds a railway into Fallowfields. So concerned are the empire’s noblemen about their neighbours taking over (“the customs of the east,” says Smew. “We don’t want them here”), it doesn’t initially occur to them that the greater threat might be from their own people leaving. They are complicit in their own downfall because they are tied to the past and comfortable in their own limitations (“I’d have liked to have been able to award Greylag and the orchestra with a day off in recognition of their valiant efforts, but unfortunately this was beyond my gift”) – even though those limitations, the roles they hold, were only recently new to them. “Progress doesn’t bring improvement,” one of the noblemen says. “It just makes people think they’re cleverer than they actually are.”
As with most Magnus Mills books, the best approach is to forget about pinning it down and simply enjoy the slipstream. A Cruel Bird Came to the Nest and Looked In is sparklingly sad and seriously funny. It tells us about loss and power and control and authority and things that more literal and realistic books would not address half as directly. It reminded me most of all of Kazuo Ishiguro’s masterpiece The Unconsoled; like that book, like life, here all the characters can do is “try to carry on as though everything was normal.”