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The Scheme for Full Employment by Magnus Mills
Picador USA, 2002, 204 pp., ISBN: 0-312-42163-X
Review by Charlie Dickinson

In 1848, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels issued their Communist Manifesto imploring, "Working men of all countries, unite!" Visionary words. The twentieth century that followed was notable for the growth of organized labor and fervent struggle, benefitting everyone who later punched a time clock. The common laborer would be more than feedstock for factories of the Industrial Revolution. Today, nearly a hundred years after Marx finished his magnum opus, Das Kapital, in the reading room of London's British Museum, many dispassionate observers would say post-Thatcher/Reagan, New Economy/Information Age, the labor movement matters less. Union memberships are down. Marx's Das Kapitalism did in Russia ....

In that historical context, English novelist Magnus Mills offers The Scheme for Full Employment, an allegory about time clocks, universal employment, decent working conditions, hilariously told in deadpan style. Mills' latest novel belongs to the literature of allegory because despite strong preferences for tea and cakes by the characters, not much in this novel grounds it in the author's homeland. This, I'd wager, is Mills' intention. Some quick swaps of character names (George for Ivan), and The Scheme for Full Employment could be about a workplace in the country that used to be named the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

Conceivably, another reviewer, more steeped in English labor history, might argue one of Mills' allegorical targets in The Scheme for Full Employment is I'm Alright, Jack defiance of British labor, post-WWII, that preceded shuttering many factories in the face of global competition, especially Asian. But I read this novel as a universal allegory with its spot-on attention to employee actions, interactions, and inactions at the workplace. Who anywhere hasn't worked with someone who had a little business on the side (say selling used cars), who actively managed same on company time? Who doesn't know the ways to "look busy" on the job, one being, as Mills offers, "giving their mirrors and headlights an extensive polish."?

So what is the scheme in The Scheme for Full Employment? Without revealing particulars--that would only spoil a potential reader's joy--I'll say our narrator admits it was a brilliant solution to keep the whole workforce employed. His job under the Scheme was to drive a UniVan from depot to depot throughout the region, as others did throughout the country. And yet, as the narrator sadly relates in the prologue, the UniVan drivers among themselves brought the Scheme to an end.

Mills' finely observed parable of workplace dynamics gone awry suggests nothing as grand as Marxist class struggle. No, it's strictly workers disunited! In a sendup of a dialectical materialism that predicted the working class would finally triumph, Mills seems to say the real operative dialectic is "schism-ism": Left to their own devices, a group of two or more workers will usually come to blows over an inherent need to be against something. That, of course, is usually another worker.

Read The Scheme for Full Employment to learn how the "flat-dayers" and the "swervers" come to loggerheads. But also read this latest from Magnus Mills for sly humor ("a number of men stood around examing the concrete floor, or looking with deep interest at the steel-span roof") that is anything but cartoony. Mills is to be applauded for fashioning an allegory that resonates keenly with serious insights into our necessary occupations.

© Charlie Dickinson

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