Partway through Magnus Mills’ “The Maintenance of Headway,” the narrator, a bus driver in a city that must be London, is stuck on a crowded road behind a truck with a warning reading, “If you can’t see my mirrors I can’t see you.” Bored and frustrated, the driver starts to frame a song. “If you can’t see my mirrors,” he sings to himself, “I can’t see you anymore / I can’t see you … anymore.” The logic is inescapable: “Sitting in a bus composing songs might seem pointless, but there was nothing else to do.”
The same might be said of this strange and lovely novel, published in the U.K. in 2009 and now available in the United States for the first time. Taking place over days or weeks — in the circular movement of the bus’ routes and rhythms, past and present lose their urgency — it is a book in which little happens but a lot is revealed.
Mills, who lives in London, knows the territory; he has driven a bus for many years. He is also an accomplished novelist, author of seven other books, the first of which, “The Restraint of Beasts” (1998), was shortlisted for the Whitbread and Man Booker prizes.
For him, mundanity is the point, or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that his is a universe where even the most mundane activities come with an intention all their own. In “The Restraint of Beasts,” this involved the building of fences, which Mills once did in his native Scotland; in “The Maintenance of Headway,” it has to do with the fluid dance of drivers, passengers and traffic, which operates according to a set of arcane rules.
Mills take his title from one such rule: "[t]he notion that a fixed interval between buses on a regular service can be attained and adhered to.” A schedule, in other words. If this hardly sounds like the stuff of compelling fiction, the sharpness and humor of his writing make it so.
Indeed, “The Maintenance of Headway” is very funny, a satire of bureaucracy. “Now let’s imagine what would happen if you turned up late,” an inspector tells the narrator. “Imagine you turned up not at 5:58, but at 6:04. That means your bus wouldn’t depart until 6:19. And let’s further imagine that one of your passengers is a train driver who is supposed to be at work at 6:44. He’s also got fifteen minutes to get his train ready. It’s scheduled to leave at 6:59 but because you’ve made him late, he doesn’t get going until 7:10. Which means the train behind him gets delayed. And the train after that. See how it accumulates? See the potential for outright bedlam? Your failure to be punctual could make a million people late to work!”
The notion of one bus driver causing an epidemic of lateness may seem ridiculous, but it also reflects a certain logic — chaos theory, maybe, or the law of unintended consequence. This, of course, is the essence of comedy. I think of “Catch-22,” with its parody of institutional language, its takedown of groupthink and doublespeak. Mills’ novel is gentler, but some of its targets, linguistic and otherwise, are remarkably similar.
Here, for instance, is Mills on taxpayer money: “The purpose of taxation is to spend other people’s money. … Therefore, by definition, it cannot be wasted.” Or here, on the dynamic between drivers and passengers: "[B]us drivers had a reputation for being rude and only people of exceptional courage asked to be let off the vehicle between stops. Conversely, if they didn’t ask, I didn’t let them off.”
Most pointed is his disquisition on inspectors, who balance their dislike of early drivers with the need for (yes) the maintenance of headway by developing a “fiendishly simple” solution: “They make sure every bus is late by exactly the same degree.” The timetables, then, are meaningless, “a line of dots and a set of random numbers; no more than a sleight of hand to fool the people.”
Were this all there was to “The Maintenance of Headway,” it would grow tiresome, but Mills is a subtle writer and nowhere more than when he addresses work.
The entire novel takes place on the job; we never see the characters’ private lives, and the narrator remains unnamed. And yet, how can we not know him when he reveals himself in the nuances of routine?
"[T]he whole process,” he observes, “was self-regulating. I was scheduled to hand my bus over to the next driver with passengers on board, so I needed to arrive at the garage exactly on time. … The former custom of pulling up at empty stops had long since fallen into disuse, but then again it provided a useful expedient when a bus needed to pause for the odd moment. The trick was never to delay too long at any one place. The few people on board needed to feel that the bus was moving, even if only very slowly; otherwise they would begin to protest.”
What Mills is describing is a sort of artistry, made all the more vivid because it largely passes unobserved. "[T]he artist at work,” he calls it, but I prefer to think of it as an engaged life. Buses, he is saying, are like anything: We get out what we put in.
“I was once driving,” his narrator tells us, "… when suddenly my bus ran out of diesel and stopped. Without exception, the entire load of passengers got out of the bus and walked away, all in different directions. As I watched them disperse, I was unable to answer the question: what are we here for?”
The Maintenance of Headway
Bloomsbury: 152 pp., $15 paper