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A Brief History of Mankind

THREE TO SEE THE KING A Novel By Magnus Mills Picador: 168 pp., $20

December 23, 2001|THOMAS CURWEN

In a child's history of the world, life unfolds with a cartoon-like simplicity. A line drawn across the center of the page is the horizon. A short vertical mark is man; another is his companion. Flutter the pages and you move through time. Magnus Mills' "Three to See the King" exists in this blank-page universe. Flutter its pages and you trace with allegorical clarity a story of man's enterprise and folly.

"I live in a house built entirely from tin," the narrator tells us in the beginning, "with four tin walls, a roof of tin, a chimney and door." He lives by himself, namelessly, on a wide, open plain in the middle of nowhere. The nearest neighbors--Simon, Phillip and Steve--live just beyond the horizon.

But Mills wastes no time animating this empty world with a range of emotions that belies its loneliness. Envy and resentment soon spread across these pages like ink splattered from a fountain pen, and what begins unassumingly as a novella lying somewhere east of "Godot" and west of Kobe Abe's famous dunes becomes instead a wild splice of "Twilight Zone" episodes and socialist theory, newsreels from Guyana and clips from Oz.

When Mills gives the world a shake, you never know what might fall out of its pockets.

The plain and the house of tin are hospitable for a time, but when a woman, Mary, arrives at the door and moves in, everything changes. One day into their growing familiarity, she asks the narrator, "Now how are you going to pass the time?"

"Before now," he confesses innocently, "I'd seldom been concerned with such questions. Existing in a house of tin was an end unto itself, a particular state of being, and time didn't come into it."

Mills has always had an easy eye for the rustic man. He showed it in the Booker-nominated "The Restraint of Beasts," his account of fence builders along the English-Scottish border, and in "All Quiet on the Orient Express," the story of one man's slow entanglement with the residents of a small village in Cumbria. But his game is less the underclass than the invisible ties that bind us to one another. Like filings around a magnet, his characters bristle in attraction and repulsion to the forces that rule their lives.

Before long, a clock hangs on the wall of the narrator's house, and the narrator, endearingly impressionable, is answering to all of his lodger's requests: Open the shutters and lengthen the chimney. Worse still, the neighbors who once lived far away become the measure of his worth.

"What had happened, I wondered, to the independent lives we'd all been enjoying until so recently? Hadn't we been content, living the way we chose here on this bleak and deserted plain? I'd presumed the answer is yes, but now I wasn't so certain. Just of late, it seemed, disaffection had risen among us."

Mills salts this wound with loss when the neighbors one day leave their homes and disappear into the wilderness, muttering cryptic appreciations to a messianic figure, Michael Hawkins. They invite the narrator to join them, but he resists. Hawkins, it turns out, is allowing a city of tin to spring up beside his house, and all who have gathered are engaged in digging a canyon deep into the plain.

Where work and life once seamlessly blended, people now work in shifts, living and digging cheek by jowl with one another. As Mills expands the world, his tale slyly sidles up to questions about work and life, ambition and civic responsibility. In response, Thomas Carlyle brushes shoulders with Peter Drucker, ancient Egyptians with trade unionists.

Urged by Mary's goading (" ... you once had great aspirations! Remember?"), the narrator embarks upon his own pilgrimage to this mystical site, discovering people blissful in their service to Hawkins. When the narrator visits the big dig, descending a steep complex of ladders into the earth, he gives himself over to the work. It is a scene worthy of Bruegel's vision of Babel, turned upside down but as suggestive of grand and immeasurable foolishness, and when the end comes--as it did in the Bible, so does it here--the filings that once stubbornly circled this magnet blow idly away in the wind.

The narrator returns home. "This house of mine has served me well," he tells us, tempered by his experience. "Though only made of tin, it held together while kingdoms were being swept away. It is both my refuge and fortress. Let it be your temple."

Such a benediction ends Mills' tale, but it is a note as disingenuous as the tale itself. You may worship such simplicity, Mills tells us with a wink, but know that such devotion can be obliterated in a single day. We are fickle in our affections, grandiose in our desires. Loneliness--that existential condition--is a necessary illusion, designed to keep us from feeling swallowed up by the anonymity of life and the opinions of others.


Thomas Curwen is deputy editor of Book Review.

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