A courageous and perhaps futile quest is the immediate, though not exclusive, subject of the sly British minimalist’s brain-squeezing fifth novel.
As he did in such tricky parables as The Restraint of Beasts (1998) and Three to See the King (2001), Mills builds ominous resonance into a seemingly simple situation from which essential clarifying details are withheld. It’s a race between two teams of explorers to reach, by different overland routes, a goal identified only as the Agreed Furthest Point. Both dialogue and incidental particulars suggest the late Victorian period, and the reader inevitably thinks of the historic contest to reach the North Pole waged by Englishman Robert Falcon Scott and Norwegian Roald Amundsen. For the leader of one expedition is Tostig, whose crewmen bear such Nordic-sounding names as Thegn, Snaebjorn and Thorsson, and are pragmatic, focused veteran explorers. Tostig’s rival is the quintessential Brit Johns, a bit of a ditherer, whose crew are a rather more disorganized lot, prone to strategic errors and internal dissension. Hardships dog both expeditions, in a bleak landscape which—a gnomic “Theory of Transportation” (consulted by both leaders) implies—may be the consequence of an unspecified global catastrophe. Then, Mills introduces the “mules,” which both parties are transporting, safely away from human contact. Yet the mules talk, reason, argue. Are they in fact humans? Are the supposed voyages of exploration actually passages traveled by slave ships (albeit by land)? (Tostig is a dictatorial, merciless martinet.) The absence of a clear resolution permits these and other interpretive possibilities to dance perversely in the reader’s mind, as Mills calmly pulls strings, leading us—along with his essentially clueless characters— toward—just possibly?—nowhere. Which is, perhaps, where all schemes of conquest and exploitation ultimately arrive.
The story never fully coheres or satisfies. But it does suggest that, despite Mills’s evident debts to Kafka and Beckett, he’s still a provocative, elusive original.