Cover image for The scheme for full employment
The scheme for full employment
Mills, Magnus.
Personal Author:
First Picador USA edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Picador USA, [2002]

Physical Description:
xiv, 204 pages : map ; 22 cm
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X Adult Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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From Magnus Mills, the acknowledged master of the working-class dystopic parable--a genre he practically invented--a new work of comic genius

The whole idea is simple yet so perfect: men drive to and from strategically placed warehouses in Univans--identical and serviceable vehicles--transporting replacement parts for...Univans. Gloriously self-perpetuating, the Scheme was designed to give an honest day's wage for an honest day's labor. That it produces nothing does not obtain. Our hero in Magnus Mills' mesmerizing new work is a five-year veteran of the Scheme: he knows the best routes, the easiest managers, the quickest ways in and out. Inevitably, trouble begins to brew. A woman arrives on the scene. Some workers develop delivery sidelines. And most disturbing of all, not all participants are in agreement. There are "Flat-Dayers," who believe the Scheme's eight-hour day is sacrosanct and inviolable, and there are "Swervers," who fancy being let off a little early now and again. Disagreement turns to argument, argument to debate, debate to outright schism. Soon the Flat-Dayers and Swervers have pushed the Scheme to the very brink of disaster...and readers to the edge of their chairs in delight.

Author Notes

Magnus Mills lives in London.

(Publisher Provided)

Magnus Mills is the author of A Cruel Bird Came to the Nest and Looked In and six other novels, including The Restraint of Beasts, which won the McKitterick Prize and was shortlisted for both the Booker Prize and the Whitbread (now the Costa) First Novel Award in 1999. His most recent novel, A Cruel Bird Came to the Nest and Looked In, was published to great critical acclaim. His books have been translated into twenty languages. His title, The Field of the Cloth of Gold, made the Goldsmiths Prize shortlist 2015.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 2

Publisher's Weekly Review

The British seem to have a particular talent for producing mordant satires of working-class mores, and Mills (The Restraint of Beasts, etc.) proves again that he is one of the best writers in the genre. In his latest labor satire-cum-parable, he takes on the post-Keynesian capitalist business model, investigating the inner workings of "The Scheme," a circular delivery business in which nondescript "UniVans" go back and forth among multiple destinations, delivering largely nonessential UniVan parts. The perfectly synchronized system begins to fall apart when a labor conflict pits the corner-cutters and slackers in the company-designated "swervers"-against their more staid counterparts, the "flat-dayers," who believe in actually working a by-the-book, eight-hour day. The drama is viewed from the perspective of an anonymous narrator, a five-year veteran of the Scheme, whose life consists of playing the company angles and watching out for new authority figures. Mills makes the plot-driven concept work by underplaying his humor, so much so that the Scheme's work environment offers a genuinely frightening reflection of the circular logic that dominates so many of today's work settings. After milking the details of his odd little scenario for all they're worth, Mills introduces his climactic conflict in the form of a strike by flat-dayers while swervers continue to work. Although the ending is somewhat predictable, the author's ability to nail the nonsensical quirks and idiosyncrasies of job patterns and business models sustains the humor, and numerous passages provide chilling insight into why we go to work and what we do when we get there. With this clever allegory, Mills turns the trip to and from work into a literary joy ride. (Dec.) Forecast: Readers plagued by anxiety about the economy and frustration with corporate malfeasance will find this a timely tale. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Every day is a glorious day for those "on The Scheme" in Mills's latest tale. Mills (The Restraint of Beasts) here depicts a self-contained world of happy and productive workers cruising the landscape in "univans," or trucks. They are delivering parts for the maintenance of the trucks they drive, going from one depot to the next, shuffling pallets back and forth. The first-person narrator seems the epitome of a polite and productive worker; his ambitious partner, George, also delivers and picks up cakes during their delivery runs. But all is not well; trouble develops when some workers, called "swervers," start leaving work early, while others, "flat-dayers," maintain a strict eight-hour schedule. The two sides move further apart as arguments disrupt the work-day pleasantries until finally a strike is called. The divisions even spread to the running of the canteen, where having tea seems to be a major event in the day, and it looks as if chaos and upheaval will shake the scheme to its very foundations. Inhabited by dronish workers, this claustrophobic environment is almost exclusively male; no relationships, no families, and very little of the outside world intrudes. Within this framework, the author keeps things moving with brief, drolly amusing scenes and encounters, inane observations, and the humor of the characters' very British sense of imperturbability. Mills is proving himself to be a major and prolific writer of social satire whose work is both ridiculous and disturbing, and this novel is recommended for all libraries.-Jim Coan, SUNY at Oneonta Lib. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



1 Len Walker saw the dangers long before the rest of us. I remember a conversation we had one morning as we stood on the loading bay at Blackwell depot, watching the UniVans roll in and out of the yard. It was a fine day, the first after a long damp spell, and several drivers were treating their vehicles to a trip through the automatic wash. At the same time goods were being cleared from the bay as quickly as they came in, with not an item of clutter in sight. It was a hive of activity, and I remarked that everything appeared to be running smooth as clockwork. 'Oh yes,' said Len. 'It all looks very rosy, but you know it could easily come to an end, don't you?' 'Come to an end?' I said. 'Surely not.' 'It could happen overnight.' 'But you always say we're living in glorious days.' 'Certainly we are! Glorious, glorious days!' 'Well then.' 'Well then nothing.' Len lowered his voice. 'These may be glorious days, but if we lose them they'll never come again.' 'Why should we lose them?' 'Because some people have started taking too much for granted. Too many liberties, if you get my meaning. I'm not naming names, but there are a few individuals around here threatening to undermine everything that's been built up over the years. They don't seem to realize it could collapse like a house of cards if they're not careful.' 'Really?' 'Oh, it may not happen for a while yet, and I'm sure we'll be able to continue just as we are for quite some time. Nonetheless, if we're overcomplacent, if we fail to cherish what we have, then I tell you, one morning we'll wake up and find it gone.' 'Have you mentioned this to anyone else?' 'Only those who'll listen. There are a number of us scattered about, spreading the word, so to speak. Obviously it's a slow process, getting through to everybody, trying to make them fully aware of the situation. Not everyone's as conscientious as you and me.' 'Well, I wouldn't say I was particularly conscientious. I like an easy time, same as the next person.' 'Maybe so,' Len replied. 'But I can see you appreciate The Scheme more than most of them.' 'Possibly.' 'Not so sure about your assistant though.' 'George? No, I don't think he ever considers such matters. More interested in distributing his cakes than anything else.' 'Well, do me a favour, will you? Try and drum the message into him and all those others who just drift along thinking this'll last for evermore. Otherwise, ten years from now they'll come back here and find the gates locked and trees growing up through the concrete.' 'Alright, I'll try my best. Look, Len, I'd better get going. Osgood's peeping out. I'll catch you next time round, OK?' 'Yes. See you.' He moved aside and watched as I descended the steps and walked to the front of the UniVan. He was still watching when I climbed inside, and I got the feeling he was observing me to see whether his words had sunk in properly. I slid the cab door shut. George was sitting in the dummy seat, surrounded by a stack of pink and white boxes. 'You been here all the while?' I said. 'I thought you were going to see Osgood.' 'No,' he replied. 'I've decided to leave it for the moment. It's going to require careful timing.' 'Suit yourself. You ready to go then?' 'Yep.' 'Right, let's move.' I started up and headed across the yard and out through the gates. 'What were you and Len talking about?' George asked, raising his voice above the engine. 'You've been rabbiting on for ages.' 'Well, you know what he's like once he gets going.' 'Yeah ...' 'He's been telling me how The Scheme's likely to fizzle out of existence at any minute.' 'He's changed his tune. Last time I spoke to him he told me we'd never had it so good.' 'Oh, he still believes all that,' I said. 'But he thinks no one else does. Apart from a select few.' 'What, like him and Mick Dalston when they're up in the games room for hours on end? Keeping it spick and span, as they put it.' 'Exactly.' 'So what's his problem then?' 'Well, you know Len takes his breakfast, dinner and tea breaks all rolled together into one?' 'Yeah,' said George. 'Has done for years.' 'But despite that he always keeps on top of the work, doesn't he?' 'Suppose.' 'And when was the last time you saw a muddle on the bay at Blackwell?' 'Can't remember.' 'Well, I can. It was when Len had his summer holiday and Charlie Green took over for two weeks.' 'Oh, that's right.' 'And Charlie kept going on about how Gosling was good for the clock if you leant on him a bit. Got himself signed out early three days in succession, and by the time Len came back there was enough backlog to make several loads.' 'He got quite upset about that, didn't he?' 'I'll say he did. Went up the wall, as a matter of fact. Didn't speak to Charlie for several months. The point I'm making is that Len always does his full eight hours even though he spends half of them upstairs. He never clocks off early because he doesn't want to jeopardize his darts, and his cards, and his snooker, and all the other leagues he's running. He's been on The Scheme a long time, don't forget. He wants it all to stay exactly as it is, but he's afraid it could crumble into nothing.' 'Why should it?' 'Because none of us values it enough.' 'Oh, he hasn't got to worry about that,' declared George. 'Lenny's trouble is he takes it all too seriously.' 'You sure about that?' 'Course I'm sure. Look, you know as well as I do The Scheme's unsinkable. These UniVans were purpose-built for the task, weren't they? Thousands of them, specially designed with interchangeable parts and immunity to rust. They'll go for years and years if they're looked after properly, and as long as they've got a future, then so have we. Nobody in their right mind's going to take them off the road. There'd be a public outcry if they did, and besides, what would become of all the depots, and the service plants, and the ancillaries? They're no use for anything else. Trust me, we won't get closed down just because Charlie Green works an early swerve from time to time.' 'Well, I hope you're right,' I said. 'If only for Len's sake.' While we'd been talking we'd got onto the Ring Road and were now heading east. Every so often we encountered UniVans coming the other way, and if they were from Long Reach we gave them a flash with our headlights. (If they originated from other depots we ignored them.) We'd already said hello in this manner to Dave Whelan and Mick Clark, followed shortly afterwards by John Ford and Colin Regis. A minute later we ran into a spot of heavy traffic, and I had to slow down to just above walking speed. 'Changing the subject,' said George. 'You know I'm off the next two weeks, don't you?' 'Yeah,' I said. 'I saw the holiday list.' 'Oh, right. Will you be OK for the cakes then?' I turned to him. 'What?' 'The cakes.' 'Yes,' I said. 'I know the cakes. I meant: what do you mean "the cakes"?' 'Well, can you do them?' 'Course I can't do them.' 'Why not?' 'Because they're your cakes, George. I don't mind you bringing them on the runs when you're here. That's one thing. But I'm not lugging them round while you swan off on holiday.' 'There'll only be a few.' 'I don't care; I'm not doing them.' 'But Trace'll kill me.' That's between you and Trace,' I said. 'The Scheme doesn't exist for your girlfriend's personal benefit, you know.' 'I'm aware of that,' said George. 'But, come on, as a favour to me. You know I'll see you alright.' Suddenly something dawned on me. 'This is why you put off seeing Osgood this morning, isn't it? You've got to ask him as well.' George sighed. 'Yeah. Look, mate, I could really do with your help on this one. I know she pushes it a bit sometimes, but when you've got a job like ours you have to make the most of it, don't you?' 'If you say so.' 'And you won't need do them Wednesday.' 'Why, what's Wednesday?' 'February 29th.' 'So?' 'Leap year, isn't it? There's no birthdays. Not round here, anyway.' 'Well, that's something to celebrate,' I said. 'Hello, what are they up to?' Waiting to emerge from a junction just ahead of us was a UniVan containing the two Steves. Actually, I could only see Steve Moore from this angle. He was behind the wheel as usual, but I knew that the person lost from view in the dummy seat would be Steve Armstrong. What caught my attention, though, was the way the vehicle was being driven, which struck me as slightly out of character. Rather than forcing his way into the line of traffic, in the manner typical of most drivers on The Scheme, Steve was politely holding back, waiting for a space to appear. None did, of course, as nobody wanted to get stuck behind a UniVan if they could avoid doing so. It would be up to me to let him in, and as we drew nearer I flashed the lights and waited for some sort of acknowledgement. Instead, without even a glance in our direction, he simply pulled forward into the gap I'd left him, and then went straight across the junction and up the road opposite! At the same moment I realized that he was quite alone in his cab. Steve Armstrong was nowhere to be seen. 'Who does he think he is?' I cried. 'Cutting across there like that!' 'Dunno,' said George. 'Bit dodgy coming off the authorized, isn't it? I thought he and Steve were supposed to be on twenty-two.' 'So did I! See the way he just cruised in front of us without so much as a nod?' I had to admit I was rattled by the sight of Steve Moore gaily sailing along an unauthorized route, enjoying the freedom of the road and doing so completely on his own. As far as I knew this was unheard of. In all the time I'd been on The Scheme I'd only ever had a UniVan to myself when we were parked up and George was off performing one of his many private errands. To drive without an accompanying assistant was prohibited, and having seen Steve doing just that made me feel quite envious. How, I wondered, did he think he would get away with it at eleven o'clock in the morning, in broad daylight? 'He'll get booked if he carries on like that,' remarked George. 'Yes,' I agreed. 'Let's hope he does.' We watched as Steve's vehicle gradually disappeared into the hinterland of side streets, industrial premises and warehouses that lay to the south of the Ring Road. Then, without further speculation, we continued on our way. We were due to arrive at Cotton Town depot at twelve forty-five, but as usual by mid-morning we were well ahead of schedule. This didn't bother us, though, as we had an extra call to make. After another two miles I pulled up beside a parade of shops, and George clambered out with his stack of cake boxes. 'Do you want to come and say hello to Sandro?' he asked. 'So you're clued up for next week?' 'You've decided I'm doing them after all then, have you?' 'Oh come on, mate. I thought you'd agreed.' 'Alright, but you'd better bring me back a stick of rock.' 'Where from?' 'The seaside.' 'I'm not going to the seaside in February, am I?' 'Where are you going then?' 'Nowhere.' 'Well, you can still get me a stick of rock,' I said. 'It'll give you something interesting to do while you're off work.' Thanks, pal.' Strictly speaking it was a bookable offence to leave the vehicle unattended, but nearly everyone did it these days so I switched off and we went to Sandro's Bakery, taking care to leave the cab doors shut. We'd had the heater switched on since ten to eight that morning and we didn't want to lose the warmth so carefully accumulated. The fiery blast that hit us when we entered the kitchen, however, made us wonder why we'd bothered. 'Blimey,' I murmured as George ushered me inside. 'Imagine having to work in this heat all the time.' I had in fact met Sandro on one former occasion when Trace saddled George with so many cakes that I'd had to help him carry them all in. He appeared to have forgotten this, however, and it was easier for the two of us to be introduced afresh. In truth, there was only time for a quick handshake and exchange of greetings because Sandro and his assistants were rushing round like madmen, each apparently performing several tasks at once, just as they had been on my previous visit. This call was really just so that Sandro would know me when I turned up with the cakes next week, but when we departed a few minutes later I had a large bagful of doughnuts in my hand, presented as a gesture of goodwill. This made it quite worthwhile. We sat in the cab and ate half of them, and I decided that helping George out wasn't going to be such a hardship after all. We'd also collected one additional box from the bakery. This contained the cake that George hoped to leave overnight in Osgood's office. It had received its coat of icing and was now ready for the next stage in its journey, namely, to be passed into the hands of Pete Giggs. 'How long's Pete got left on run seven?' I asked, as George carefully placed the cake on top of the dashboard. 'Finishes end of next week,' he replied. 'Then he goes onto fourteen.' 'So he'll be no use to you for a while after that.' 'It's not a question of use,' George protested. 'It's a mutual arrangement. I help him with his bits and pieces. He helps me with mine.' 'Osgood's not going to be so easy though.' 'Well, he was alright last time I asked him. Should be OK if I handle him carefully. I think I'll have to regard this as a test case.' By the time we got moving again it was comfortably past twelve o'clock, so we enjoyed a pleasant spin along the Ring Road before pulling into Cotton Town exactly on schedule. This was fortunate because Hoskins was standing just inside the gate timing everyone in. He gave me a little sort of friendly nod as we passed by, but I paid him no attention at all and went straight across the yard before reversing back onto the loading bay. We were supposed to spend the next fifteen minutes waiting by the vehicle on the off-chance that someone would come and unload it before one o'clock. In reality, of course, the morning was already considered to be over, so after a quick check to make sure Hoskins was still busily engaged at the gateway, we slipped off for dinner. 'Coming up the canteen?' asked George. 'Game of cards?' 'No,' I said. 'I'll go over to the cafe I think.' 'OK, see you later.' 'Yeah, see you.' At half past one I was back on the bay giving the van's windscreen a polish. Then I slid open the roller door and looked inside. It was hardly what you would call a full load. Nearest me, about halfway back, was a single pallet stacked with medium crates. Beyond this, a number of empty pallets were piled up next to a pallet full of empty crates. With the aid of a trolley I could have unloaded the whole lot, on my own, in about ten minutes. But this wasn't the way of things on The Scheme, so instead I sat on the concrete edge and waited. Actually, I quite liked being here at this time of day when all was quiet. There was no sign of Hoskins, and as far as I could see Watts's office was deserted. My only company was the half-dozen UniVans that stood lined along the bay, waiting for their afternoon duties to begin. Beyond them the emergency fire hose lay coiled around its drum. I enjoyed the silent hiatus for a further ten minutes, and then at last heard feet returning. 'I saw Steve Armstrong up in the darts room,' George announced. 'Playing on his own.' 'Was he winning?' I enquired. 'Dunno, but he was being a bit funny, I thought.' 'Why?' 'Well, I asked him how come he wasn't out with Steve Moore today, and he just sort of looked at the dartboard and said, "I've been stood down." You know, all abrupt like.' 'Didn't he give a reason?' 'No, he didn't, and then Jumo Williams came in and they started practising, so I came out.' 'I expect there's a simple explanation.' 'I hope so,' said George. 'I don't like it when people are being funny.' THE SCHEME FOR FULL EMPLOYMENT. Copyright (c) 2002 by Magnus Mills. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address Picador, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010. Excerpted from The Scheme for Full Employment: A Novel by Magnus Mills All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.