What is it with English writers and this fatalistic idea that all societies eventually, spontaneously disintegrate into some kind of absurd nightmare? There was William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, George Orwell’s Animal Farm, Alex Garland’s The Beach, and now the latest iteration: The Forensic Records Society by Magnus Mills.
The shortest of these works, this graceful contemporary novella sort of picks up from where its predecessors left off, and sort of departs from that place. It tells the story of a few (rather non-descript) British music-lovers who kick off a society in which they sit together and listen to rare music records. While the idea seems to work wonderfully at first, eventually internal discord (about the society’s set-up, and about what kinds of music they should listen to and why) leads to schism, compromise, and conflict, in a process that mirrors the breakdown of many an idealistic dream in modern societies.
The Forensic Record Society shares with the Goldings, the Orwells and the Garlands of the British Isles the same narrative arch. Like these writers, Mills seems to suggest that the source of (social) evil is not a single person or an event or a flaw, but rather, society itself, which tends to inevitably collapse under the weight of its own rules. Ideals are all nice and well, but human failings always get in the way: some people are visionaries, others are utilitarians, others are something else altogether. Some believe they are the same but deep down aren’t, some believe they’re different but are really doing the same things, and in the end their attempts at working together turn into a massive, collective compromise that loses sight of the ideals it was born from. Mills tries to keep a jovial atmosphere to his writings, but the philosophy that emerges from his book is pretty bleak.
This may be because the object of his satire is more contained. While previous writers (not just British ones) often attempted to parody society as a whole, Mills is doing something that feels quite a bit more specific. My impression was that the Forensic Record Society was meant as a mirror not of all society but specifically of religious orders and cults. These characters have dogmas, aestheticisms, interpretations, holy texts, excommunications, converts, apostates and one whole society which is devoted entirely to ‘confessions’.
Although the narrative doesn’t sketch any direct equivalent to the concept of faith (the closest is the question of whether a character genuinely ‘loves music’, a problem which the narrator tells us ‘can neither be proved nor disproved’), nonetheless, the dynamics of the various societies have little in common with a political class and very much indeed with a religious one. They do not control the pub they’re in, they rent it. They share their authority with other sovereigns, like the pub’s owner, and they make and accept covenants over resources, assets, and control.
The description of these dynamics is subtle and suggestive, and the story of the society is compelling. The characters are, regrettably, not so memorable. They are all quite one-dimensional and defined at most by one or two traits. It doesn’t help that Mills dubbed everyone by the most generic names he could think of (Chris, Mike, Dave), which may have been an attempt to represent the Everymen of English culture, but which only succeeds in making his reader lose track and interest.
Still, perhaps this is a necessary function of the story’s brevity. This is more a pamphlet than a novel — I finished it over two reading sessions in one day. Since Mills is treating concepts familiar to British literature, this is a good thing, and the novel does a strong job of expanding on its points without outstaying its welcome.
The Forensic Record Society feels fresh for tackling the issue of societal disintegration with a revamped style. While previous novels were brutal and dim, this story is light, ironic and funny.
This is partly an effect of Mills’ more accurate focus, choosing to parody religious codes and language rather than the whole bottomless box of human society, but it’s also a double-edged sword. The freshness of the novel’s style becomes an indication of its limits, as the correlation between religious conflict and disintegration on one side, and non-violent, non-brutal resolution on the other, is one that only the West is allowed.
Mills’ likeable, parochial, Guinness-drinking folks sure know their music well, but they seem to know very little about the world outside of it. What their wisdom gains in depth, it also lacks in breadth.