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.