Gags where geeks find their groove

The Foren­sic Records So­ci­ety

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - ARTS & BOOKS - Kevin Gildea

By Mag­nus Mills Blooms­bury, £18.99

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 t he ab­sur­dity of li f e. 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 i ntrigues, 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.”

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.

Through its small world it ex­plores the en­er­gies that are re­leased as in­di­vid­ual in­ter­ests are me­di­ated on a larger scale

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 pro- ject 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.

In­di­vid­ual in­ter­ests

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

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