One of the things I like to do when I get bogged down or bored is take a trip to Barnes and Noble or Half-Price Books or any bookstore with a discount section. I then look for really discounted fiction; stuff marked down to a couple of bucks. I pick out books that I know nothing about but that look interesting from the dust jacket and blurbs. I call these “random books.” I find it interesting just to pick up these books and see if I can’t find a gem among them.
I picked up some random books the other day and one of them was Three to See the King by Magnus Mills. It seemed interesting and mysterious plus it was short (176 pages). Since I only paid three dollars, I would count this as a gem. It is a sort of minimalist fable but the language and characters are interesting enough to sustain it. It is not life changing or deeply affecting but it is an enjoyable read; a sort of surreal version of Graham Green’s entertainments.
The story centers around an unnamed narrator who lives in a house made of entirely of tin. The narrator seems happy to have found this abandoned house of tin and happy with his life within it. Things begin to change, however, when he receives a visitor. He describes this person, her name is Mary Petrie, as a “friend of a friend.” Having only met her once or twice, he is unsure of how to proceed. But soon, despite her occasional moodiness, he is happy to have her around and they even begin sharing a bed. But soon other visitors show up. His friends scattered across this blustery plain begin to visit as well. As a result his life is a bit more complicated then he might like. All this interaction forces him out of his comfort zone as they say.
The plot begin to pick up speed when his friends decide to literally pack up their houses and move to a new area. They are moving to be close to a sort of guru named Michael Hawkins. Our narrator doesn’t share this compulsion and so pulls back from his friends and watches at a distance as they move all of their possessions across the plain to this new community. Eventually he is pulled by curiosity to visit the community and meet this Michael Hawkins. The story reaches a climax as he interacts with Hawkins and this growing community. In fact, he finds himself at the center of an confrontation between Hawkins and his former followers and is forced to mediate their violent dispute.
What makes the book interesting and enjoyable is the mood and tone that Mill sets. The other-worldliness infuses the book. It has a sort of surreal feel to it as it describes this blustery plain far from civilization with characters that nevertheless seem to live normal lives. It also has a minimalist feel as well. There is no discussion of how people feed themselves or acquire the things they have. There is no explanation or description of what they eat accept a few mentions of cake; although they do drink coffee. But within this bleak landscape you get a clear picture of the personalities of the characters. Mills has a way of communicating the temperaments and personalities of the characters without a lot of language; without long drawn out descriptions. You sort of understand them by osmosis. In the most basic interactions between the narrator and Mary Petrie for example, you get a sense of their relationship. Mary is a person who has to have things just so and who wants to create a space for herself. She wants pictures on the walls and flowers on the tables and the shutters open in Spring and Summer. She gets restless and a little moody if she is cooped up too long. The narrator also likes this just so but he likes things just as they were. He doesn’t seem to need anything except the house itself. He has a an almost zen approach to his life and the environment around him. Of course Mary upsets this balance but he is willing to accept the disturbance for the companionship. In much the same way, he finds that despite their annoying habits and idiosyncrasies they are an important part of his life. Once they are gone he feels their absence. Again, all of this is communicated with minimal description and dialog.
I must admit I didn’t find any deeper meaning in the book. For much of it, it felt like it was going to be a religious parable but it didn’t really develop that way. Instead it seems to be a simple story mean to evoke a mood and to make you think about life from a different perspective. By removing all of the clutter that normally surround people’s live Mills is able to focus on human interaction and motivation. His skillful use of language and his ability to carry a mood make it an enjoyable diversion. If you are looking for something a little different, a sort of stripped down fable, check out the Barnes and Noble bargain bin next time you are out.
For more on Mills see the Complete Review Magnus Mills Page.