Magnus Mills's excellent novel The Restraint of Beasts achieved its comic effect through a deadpan tone that, with its sustained pitch, exercised a growing absurdity; a relentless striking of the same tone resulting in an increasing giddiness that got funnier and funnier even though this pitch remained the same. This tone produced an anaesthetised perspective far removed from any emotions that the characters may have felt . . . a distance that allowed us to laugh at the absurdity of life. There was something of Stanley Kubrick in its cold hilarity.
In this new book, Mills once again maintains a sustained tone that drives the comedy of his book. However, although the tone is related to The Restraint of Beasts, its resultant perspective is not as distant or cold, with the result that it is not as funny. But what it loses in humour it gains in a warmth, in a genuine evincing of the quiet joys of the characters' concerns.
A celebration of the characters’ interests (in this case listening to vinyl records) is the vehicle for quietly expressing the joys of life – the phenomenological expression of consciousness through intention towards an object or activity.
The stylus of the story is composed of vinyl-playing-based intrigues, but the groove is an allegory on the nature of societies: what happens when the individual ventures forth into interactions with other individuals – the group dynamic.
The story revolves around the playing of 7-inch vinyl records. James and the narrator meet in James’s house to play these records (three times each) and to listen attentively to them. The book opens with them playing a particular (unnamed) record and wondering if it is being played anywhere else in the world:
“I can’t believe there isn’t somebody playing it somewhere,” says James, to which the narrator responds: “I can assure you that we’re quite alone.”
Partaking of society
There is philosophical intent: the individual (consciousness) going out into the world of other individuals and partaking of society and all the dynamics that entails. By taking old-school LP-playing geeks whose passion is so intimate it exposes the vulnerability of the individual to the energies created by groups. There is a sweet tenderness at the heart of the book.
James decides that latecomers will not be admitted to the club, and a long-leather-coated latecomer is refused entry. It is James’s decision but the narrator must implement it. James quickly emerges as the leader of the group, and his gradual assumption of power is unassumingly observed by the narrator, who witnesses it through his own slipping position in the power stakes. He assumes his place in society as though by his own volition:
“For reasons of their own Mike and Rupert similarly ruled themselves out. Needless to say James couldn’t possibly fill the role, and I gradually realised the mantle was about to fall on my shoulders. ‘Alright, I’ll volunteer,’ I said. ‘Should be interesting actually.’ ”
A new poster appears in the pub advertising another club: "Confessional Records Society. Bring a Record of Your Choice and Confess!" It turns out the rejected leather-coated stranger is behind this. Pretty soon there's a Perception Record Society operating on a Wednesday followed by a New Forensics Society.
Thus follows an exploration worthy of court intrigue applied to the lives of old-school geeks who take their record-listening out of their homes and into the public domain, thus unleashing all sorts of forces. Much of the fun comes from the importance placed on vinyl activities, which in turn pokes gentle fun at all human activities: “I’d decided to embark on a side project of my own. My plan was to play all my records that faded in and out.”
The novel is dotted with the titles of songs being played, and often these humorously comment on or undermine the adjacent story. There are some great gags – one in particular based on the name of another local pub is brilliant. There is often humour in repeated observation: one such is the men’s repeated incredulous querying of Alice’s high heels – “How does she walk in them?” – to the point that it is not the question itself that is held up to scrutiny but the type of language or thought used to consider the nature of the boundaries between self and The Other – in this case, gender boundaries.
The Forensic Records Society is a funny book, but it could have been a lot funnier. The story runs out of some steam towards the end, but the tenderness holds.
The novel is to be celebrated as a unique achievement. Through its small world it explores the strange energies that are released as individual interests are mediated on a larger scale – how rules thwart individual interests, how rivalries and groups form, how power grabs coincide with money-making, corruption and capitalism, religion and desire and The Other, and the unsettling sense of not knowing what’s happening.
All these subtle energy currents are tracked in this modest tale of pints and 7-inch singles. It's as if Don DeLillo had gone for a pint in an old English pub – Underworld in Ye Olde Worlde.
Kevin Gildea is a comic and a critic