I enjoy quirky small books. What is not to like? They are usually different from my regular reading diet. They are short and readable. And they often introduce me to new authors. Frequently I nourish this enjoyment via the discount table at Barnes and Noble or at a place like Half-Price Books. This was how I stumbled up Three to See the King by Magnus Mills. In enjoyed Mills enough that when I came across The Scheme for Full Employment I picked it up. Feeling in a bit of a rut, I recently read this short fable of work.
Much of what I said about Three to See the King is true of Scheme. It is a minimalist story that seeks to illuminate a part of life by boiling it down to its most basic parts. In this case it is work and the workplace. The story focus on the UniVan drivers employed in a, you guessed it, a scheme for full employment. This make work plan has the drivers moving spare UniVan parts around a grid just to keep busy. The story is told by a nameless UniVan driver who understands that “The Scheme” is in some ways a farce, nevertheless enjoys and appreciates the smooth functioning of the system; it might not be perfectly rational but it works in its own way.
The conflict arises when certain employees begin to take advantage of lulls in work to sign of early by getting a manager’s signature. Those who like to take the occasional, swerve as its called, are soon pitted against those who insist on working strictly by the book in order to ensure the continuation of the scheme (the flat-dayers). The system is soon upended by a strike. But the strike isn’t what dooms the scheme. Instead, is destroyed by an arcane compromise insisted upon at its creation and the absent mindedness of the UniVan driver narrator.
The problem with Mills, at least for me, is that one is not sure exactly to make of his books. Is The Scheme for Full Employment a “mordant satire of working-class mores?” Is it a political fable on the self-destructive nature of bureaucracy? A comment on how closed systems always fall prey to entropy and collapse because they can’t change?
Frankly, I have no idea. But it was an interesting read. I think the folks over at Complete Review sum it up nicely:
The Scheme for Full Employment is a slight book. Very little happens, and there isn’t much to the characters. Still, Mills does capture the workplace atmosphere very well, and he does a good job of keeping the real world at bay (almost nothing of the world outside The Scheme is revealed, not even that narrator’s domestic life). A bit more substance and analysis would have been welcome, though one understands why Mills presents it in this anodyne way. The novel is a modest entertainment — but that in the best senses of the words.