Screwtop Thompson and Other Tales
by Magnus Mills
Hardback; 128 pages
When a writer dedicates his collection of short stories to ‘Special K,’ you naturally have high hopes for rest of the book. Magnus Mills is the author of six novels, which have established him as ‘a demented, deadpan comic wonder,’ according to Thomas Pynchon. Screwtop Thompson, Mills’ first collection of short stories, comprises ten short tales that trundle gently between the ordinary, absurd and the outright surreal. In Mills’ England, lorry drivers look for roadside cafes and committees yawn their way through parish meetings, but among such humdrum matters you might a siege going on in your neighbourhood – staged by your mother.
Surreal twists aside, we’ve all been to this England – many of us first encountering it through the pastoral flatness of a toy farm set or picture – books where the people have no faces. It’s a safe sort of place, where you are always guaranteed to get home from your adventures in time for tea. But as the setting
for Mills’ stories, it quickly becomes dull and inhibiting. In this fictional, floating neverland, nothing much happens and the characters are more like tropes. At first you can convince yourself it’s amusing in a twee sort of way, but soon the lack of detail about people and places becomes irritating. The stories, short as they are, cannot engage the reader for long. The anticipated humour from a promising combination of the banal and the bizarre never quite comes off.
If the stories in this collection must be called funny at all, then they are most like the literary equivalents of nudges and winks. A string of slightly strange events generally culminates in an ironic twist at the end of each story, where you can almost hear the author going ‘ba-boom-CHING’. The problem is, the preceding story hardly ever makes the pay-off worthwhile. The first person narrator, whose tone is exactly the same in each story, acts as an authorial stand-in who talks in omniscient statements: ‘Eventually I decided it was time to get up, so I dressed and opened the blinds.’
There is little nuance of diction in the way the stories are told: the language is a consistent mixture of straight exposition and saggingly tired metaphors. It may have been better for Mills to go for the third person, where the effect could have come off as pastiche of storytelling rather than as storytelling at its most uninspiring.
Occasionally, lack of characterisation works in the author’s favour: the funniest story in the collection is ‘Good Cop’, where an interviewee brought in for police questioning faces a bizarre one-sided interrogation. This story exploits a familiar stereotype and its final line is laugh-out-loud funny. But in most of the stories, the characters aren’t supposed to be such caricatures and the stories fall flat as a result. The stories that do something more, and are more memorable, are those where Mills creates a richer and more realistic world. One such story is ‘Half as Nice’, in which Mills evokes nostalgia for ‘the liberal decade’ in his telling of the life of a sixties girl group icon from their glamorous past to the washed-up present day. Here I found a beautifully turned tragi-comic line: ‘Their hits all used the same template: songs about loneliness that you could dance to.’ But such lines are all too rare in the collection.
The final story, and my favourite of the collection, is ‘A Public Performance’, in which a teenage boy tries to take on the military fashion of the 1970s and fails spectacularly. Here the angst and vanity of adolescence are captured perfectly against the era of Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin. In this story, the specifics of time and place go a long way to making the characters more engaging and allowing Mills to work in the fabric of everyday life. (In this case, the fabric is quite literal fabric, since the story revolves around a military coat). The pathos of ‘A Public Performance’ plays out when our narrator cannot admit the mistake he has made in his fashion decision, so ‘turning up my collar, I went and stood by the doorway.’ The story treads a fine balance between humour and drama, and is by far the most compelling of the collection.
There is nothing wrong with writing for the sake of being funny – but comedy cannot operate in a vacuum. Humour tends to hit hardest when it is embedded within the human details of life. I admit that it’s rare to find writers who can be funny and sad and true all at the same time – but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t still hope for them. Especially when their dedication pages are so promising.