Books: File it between Camus and Blyton

All Quiet on the Orient Express by Magnus Mills Flamingo pounds 9.99
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The Independent Culture
Of all the genres in modern fiction, few can be quite as discredited or out of fashion as the avant garde. Writers who are keen to make a display of their intelligence are these days unlikely to resort to impenetrable plot-free narrative, and will in all probability use the literary thriller or historical fiction as a conduit for their ideas.

The avant garde, meanwhile, languishes. Many bookshops have a cult section, but it would be unusual for this to contain much literary experimentation, and is in fact just a convenient way to put books about drug abuse in one place so that doped-out people looking for something to read don't have to tax themselves with the alphabet like the rest of us.

The arrival of Magnus Mills on the British literary scene is therefore extraordinarily refreshing. He represents a genuinely avant garde voice who has breathed new life into the genre (if it can indeed be called a genre) by flouting all expectations of what a novel can be about.

By the standards of conventional plot, Magnus Mills' new novel, All Quiet on the Orient Express, is about nothing at all. A guy camping in a farmer's field starts doing a few odd jobs for the farmer, then starts working for him full time, and ultimately gets ripped off. By the standards of ordinary narrative, this is all that happens. And yet this novel is by no means plotless. An extraordinarily complex series of minutely detailed actions shift the story forward, each one predicated on everything that has gone before. The entire book, in fact, is story. There is very little reflection. Mills somehow constructs a complex sequence of events that only his narrative voice can form into a plot.

One way in which he achieves this is through the subtle weirdness of his narrator's world view. Our unnamed narrator is unable to tell what is interesting in his own story. He has a strange childish sexlessness which drifts casually over the farmer's teenage daughter who insists on being given darts lessons in a hayloft, only briefly pausing to describe the progression in her throwing technique and unaware of her lascivious intentions. Meanwhile, the narrator will go into inordinate detail as to the availability of different types of biscuit at the village shop.

The narrator seems bizarrely detached from his own plight, and often seems like a two-dimensional man adrift in a three-dimensional world. Since this narrator - incapable of exploring his own motivation, or of conceiving the motivation of the characters around him - is the only voice we hear, the novel, by rights, ought to be as flat as its narrator. Yet, thanks to Mills' brilliance, it isn't. It pretends to be, and I can imagine some readers thinking it is, but it isn't. An extraordinary alchemy is at work between the lines of this book, breathing life into a sequence of seemingly inconsequential events. Mills is genuinely unique, but if he is to be placed anywhere in the jigsaw of literary history, he will have to slot between Albert Camus and Enid Blyton.

Mills' universe is one of perverse detail. When a man spots some adrift boats out of his kitchen window, he tells the owner that "I wouldn't normally go to the window at that time in the morning, but Deakin had left the wrong milk again and I was looking across the lake to see how far he'd got." The boat-owner replies "What milk did you ask for then?" - a characteristically Millsian question - to which the answer is "Well, I prefer homogenized Wednesdays. When my uncle has his tea here."

In this instance, Mills is playing the device for laughs. It does, however, form a cornerstone of his literary vision. His writing pivots around the world of manual labour, so often rendered kitsch by efforts to poeticise it in the manner of Cormac McCarthy for example, and presents a new take on it by simply using more detail than anyone has dared to use before. Mills finds a poetry in seemingly the most unpoetic of actions by the sheer baldness of his writing. With barely an adjective in sight, he does more to make physical work seem hard than any other writer I have come across.

And yet, this facet of his writing is only a sideline. In among the deceptive simplicity of his prose lurks a strange and implacable sense of threat. Shortly before the halfway mark in the book, the narrator leaves Mr Parker, the farmer for whom he has been working, only to find himself stranded, some distance away, by the breakdown of his motorbike. Before long, Mr Parker appears from nowhere in his pickup truck and takes him back to the farm - a moment that on one level seems like the kind of clumsily fortuitous coincidence relied on by children's stories, on another like a dark and strange twist to the story.

In fact it is both. As the cover of the book implies, Mills' narrative deliberately hovers around the edge of old-fashioned children's books, nodding to both Blyton and Arthur Ransome, while in a manner slightly reminiscent of David Lynch somehow endowing nostalgic kitsch with a sense of weirdness and threat.

This is Mills' greatest skill. He can invest banality with horror, mundanity with malignity. He can even render the English countryside menacing. These abilities make him one of the handful of British writers to work in a unique fictional universe. For this, Mills is to be treasured and revered. You cannot ask more of a book than for it to make the familiar seem fresh, strange and scary. In a modest, sneaky way, Mills pulls this off better than any other writer at work today.