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