TagJon McGregor

Books of the 2010s: Fifty Memories, nos. 20-11

Welcome to the fourth part of my countdown of reading memories from the 2010s. You can read the previous instalments here: 50-41, 40-31, 30-21.

Something I’ve found interesting about this instalment in particular is that a couple of the books here (The Wake and Lightning Rods) just missed out on a place in my yearly list of favourites when I first read them. But they have stayed with me over the years, and their placing on my list reflects that.

This is one of my reasons for making this list: to see how my feelings about different books have (or haven’t) changed.

On to this week’s memories…

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“You can’t get thoughts out of your mind just by trying”

Jon McGregor, This Isn’t the Sort of Thing That Happens to Someone Like You (2012)

Perhaps above all else, what emerges clearly from this collection for me is that Jon McGregor is a superb writer of the mundane. I suspect this is an undervalued quality in a writer (certainly I have undervalued it in the past); but This Isn’t the Sort of Thing demonstrates its value quite clearly.

The book’s opening piece, a two-page vignette entitled ‘That Colour’ is a fine example of what McGregor can achieve on a small canvas: while her partner (the narrator) washes the dishes, a woman looks out of the window and tries to describe the colour into which the trees are turning (“When you close your eyes on a sunny day, it’s a bit like that colour”). Sensing her apparent surprise, the narrator describes the process of chlorophyll breaking down in leaves; but the woman already knows that: “It’s just lovely, they’re lovely, that’s all, you don’t have to”. There we have two characters sketched briefly yet precisely – one thinking in practical terms, the other more intuitively – and the sense of an awkward emotional space between them. We can only guess what may have happened to create that space; but the simple gesture at the end, of the pair holding hands and the narrator saying, “But tell me again,” is enough to show that the gap between the couple is starting to be bridged. It’s a small but telling moment, depicted economically yet with a true sense of the way people talk around each other.

This Isn’t the Sort of Thing has a good number of these very short pieces (some just a few sentences long) which capture little ironies and significant details. ‘Airshow’ sees a family returning from a funeral, and deciding to take the grandfather to see his old station during the war – but there’s nothing much to see at the airfield, and nothing much that he wants to say. The family also goes past a current RAF base, where there’s a display of vintage aircraft; at home, the grandfather asks “just what it was those people with the binoculars had thought they might be waiting to see”. That one remark encompasses thoughts on the passing of time, and the transformation of the horrors that the grandfather would have seen into a nostalgic tourist attraction. ‘The Remains’ evokes the despair of losing a loved one through the use of dispassionate sentence-fragments which could all begin with the two words of its title (“Are believed to still be intact,” and so on). The piece ends with the phrase “Have yet to be found” repeated over and over – a truth inescapable on the page, as it would be in life.

[EDIT: Max’s comment below prompts me to add, in case I’ve given the wrong impression, that there are also some longer pieces in the book – though a majority are ten pages or fewer.]

One of McGregor’s hallmarks in these stories is how, through language, he shows characters trapped in particular thought and behaviour patterns. ‘If It Keeps On Raining’ (which I wrote about previously here) focuses on a man building a shelter for the flood he’s sure is coming; we discover that he was a police officer at Hillsborough, who cannot let go of what he experienced there – the surging river reminds him of the surging crowd, and images of that day go around and around in his head. The narrator of ‘What Happened to Mr Davison’ is giving evidence at an inquest; they hide behind the rhetoric of officialdom to deflect attention from whatever it was that affected the titular farmer – but occasionally we catch glimpses of the real person underneath, who would like to be more forthright, though the circumstances (and perhaps also professional obligations) do not allow it.

McGregor’s stories are populated by often anonymous characters, at what may often seem at first to be unexceptional moments in their lives. But, time and again, the author takes us beneath the surface to show how pivotal those moments can be.

This book has been shortlisted for the 2013 Edge Hill Short Story Prize. Click here to read my other posts on the shortlist.

See also:
My other posts about Jon McGregor’s work.
Some other reviews of this book: Sam Ruddock for Vulpes Libris; dovegreyreader; Valerie O’Riordan for Bookmunch.

Jon McGregor, ‘Wires’ (2011)

This is the second year running in which Jon McGregor has been shortlisted for the Award, which would be notable in itself; but, more than that, it’s also the second time in a row that has been runner-up. I very much liked McGregor’s nominated story last year; and he’s written another superb piece in this time around. ‘Wires’ is the story of a student named Emily Wilkinson who has an accident on the motorway when a sugar-beet smashes through her windscreen. Whilst waiting for the police to arrive, she dwells on her life, particularly her relationship with doctoral candidate Marcus, over which she has her doubts.

As with last year’s story, I’m struck by how completely McGregor evokes his protagonist’s mindset through his prose. The title of ‘Wires’ seemingly refers to neural pathways; and the rambling, jagged passages of narration evoke the feeling of a mind working than one can comprehend. Here, for example, is the opening of the story:

It was a sugar-beet, presumably, since that was a sugar-beet lorry in front of her and this thing turning in the air at something like sixty miles an hour had just fallen off it. It looked sort of like a giant turnip, and was covered in mud, and basically looked more or less like whatever she would have imagined a sugar-beet to look like if she’d given it any thought before now. Which she didn’t think she had. It was totally filthy. They didn’t make sugar out of that, did they? What did they do, grind it? Cook it?

All this and more goes through Emily’s mind before the sugar-beet even hits her car. Her thoughts flit from subject to subject in this way, with these lengthier passages punctuated by terser dialogue from the two men who saw Emily’s accident and have come to help; when they speak, the effect is of reality intruding in on the world of thought, in order to reassert itself.

McGregor also uses his narrative style to subtly suggest that maybe Emily hasn’t been left as unscathed by the incident as she had assumed. I’d say ‘Wires’ was a worthy runner-up, and will be interested to see how the winning story compares.

This is one of a series of posts reviewing the shortlist for the 2011 BBC National Short Story Award. Click here to read my other posts on the Award.

Jon McGregor, Even the Dogs (2010)

At the tail end of last year, I read Jon McGregor’s piece in the BBC National Short Story Award anthology, and liked it very much. After that, I was bound to read one of his novels at some point; Even the Dogs is on the current TV Book Club list, so now seems as good a time as any. The distinctive style and facility with language that I found in the story are here again in this novel, yet I don’t find myself quite as enthusiastic this time around.

In the final week of the year, the body of an alcoholic named Robert Radcliffe is found in his flat; he has slipped through the cracks in society, and the authorities try to piece together who he was. However, the book’s narrators (an unspecified chorus of ‘we’, possibly dead, but in any case unseen and anonymous, like Robert) know who he is, and offer us glimpses into both Robert’s life and those of his friends, who struggle with their own issues of homelessness and addiction.

Even the Dogs is a relatively short novel (little over 200 pages), and that is its ideal length; McGregor’s dense and fragmented prose is most effective in such small, intense bursts. It’s a style that enables the novel to reflect at a structural level the lives of its characters. A very striking example is the second chapter, which focuses on Danny, the friend who first found Robert’s body but didn’t go to the police about it. Danny wanders the city trying to find Robert’s daughter, Laura – trying to find anyone he can tell. There are sentence-fragments throughout the novel, but it’s even more noticeable in this chapter, because each section ends in an unfinished sentence. The sense one gains (through this technique, the constant changes of scene, and simply through the events of Danny’s search) is of a life that never settles – that never can settle.

Elsewhere in the novel, McGregor uses juxtaposition to great effect, as in the fourth and fifth chapters, which deal respectively with the autopsy and inquest. The dry formalities of these official procedures are intercut with scenes from other viewpoints, and this creates some powerful contrasts. For example, the narrators note how methodical and in-depth is the autopsy examination of Robert’s body, and reflect ruefully that it’s more attention than Robert and his friends have ever received in life. Then there are the phrases from group therapy sessions (‘Who’s got something they feel they can share’) studded through the narrative, which serve as emblems of the distance between the realities of the characters’ lives and the standard official responses to them (‘You want to start paying more attention pal this stuff’s everywhere’, p. 67).

And yet, for all that I think Even the Dogs is an effective piece of work, I find it easier to admire than to like. There’s something about its very focus that makes it difficult to view the novel truly from the inside, as it were. Still, I’m glad to have read the book, and will be reading McGregor’s work again in the future.

Jon McGregor’s website
Extract from Even the Dogs
Interview with McGregor at TheExcerpt.com
Even the Dogs blogged elsewhere: Dovegreyreader; Asylum; KevinfromCanada; Bookmunch.

Jon McGregor, ‘If It Keeps On Raining’ (2010)

This is perhaps the most transporting story on the shortlist, in that (I think) it takes us the most thoroughly into the mind of its protagonist, which is quite an unsettling place to be. McGregor’s protagonist is a man who lives on his own in a little riverside house, and does nothing much more than watch the fisherman on the opposite bank and the boats that sometimes go past, and work on his raft and treehouse, the latter being his preparations for the unceasing rain and torrential floods that he believes are coming.

McGregor sketches in the history of this man very subtly. Reading between the lines, we discover that he was a police officer at the Hillsborough  disaster, who subsequently left the force because of the psychological trauma, and no longer lives with his wife and children. He dwells on the disaster still:

If it’s been raining a lot…[debris] gets swept along like small children in a crowd, like what happens in a football match if there are too many people in not enough space and something happens to make everyone rush, if they all start to run and then no one person can stop or avoid it, they all move together…

This almost stream-of-consciousness style of delivery gives a sense of intense preoccupation with whatever the man is thinking about at the time, be it past, present, or future; but there’s also a sense of inertia at times — he thinks about what accidents might befall the people out there on the boats, but can’t really see himself doing anything to help if one occurred.

This sense extends to the coming floods: on the one hand, the protagonist has asked the anonymous narrator to tell us these important things; on the other, he imagines that no one will listen, and he’ll only save himself, and his children if he sees them. The parallel McGregor makes between the rains and Hillsborough is effective (our man couldn’t stop a flood of people, but perhaps he can make up for it with how he handles a flood of water);  and the whole story a superb portrait of a man deeply scarred by the past, holding on to some hope for the future.

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