CategoryMcGregor Jon

Reflections: 'more than real'

When I love a book, I love it strongly: my favourite books have all, in their own ways, made the experience of living that bit more intense. One thing I’ve been trying to do through the blog this year is to come up with a way of encapsulating just what it is in books that makes me respond that way. This hasn’t been an easy task, because it needs to encompass some ostensibly very different types of books: I started off as a reader of fantasy and science fiction, but increasingly find myself drifting away from them; most of my favourites these days come from the ‘General Fiction’ shelves, yet I still tend to find straightforward realism lacking. I perceive a continuum across the books I love, and I’ve long had an idea in the back of my mind as to what unites them; but any description I tried – ‘postmodern’, ‘avant-garde’, ‘speculative fiction’ – would always seem to leave out something important.

The other day, however, the phrase ‘more than real’ popped into my head. What I mean by this is a sense that the conventional frame or form of a given book can’t contain the reality of what’s being written, so it has to push or twist. This feels right to me in terms of describing my favourite books. It covers some obviously fantastical material: Christopher Priest’s equivocal realities; Helen Oyeyemi’s collisions of story; Adam Roberts’s laboratories for testing sf. It takes in writers who take a non-realist approach to ‘the real world’: Eleanor Catton’s living sculptures; Jon McGregor’s unearthing of the strangeness in everyday experience; the mirage of coherence in Hawthorn & Child (‘more than real’ might be another way of saying ‘not real at all’). But there’s also room under that umbrella for writers like Ray Robinson and Evie Wyld, apparently realist writers who, to my mind, are shaping their work in subtler ways. One thing I’ve learned over time is that even the most mundane subject matter can be ‘more than real’.

It’s interesting to me that, though my taste in fiction hasn’t suddenly changed, just having that phrase ‘more than real’ has enabled me to think about these things in a different way. because I can see what I mean more clearly. I have a better idea of what I’m really looking for in fiction, so I should be better placed to find it and explore the experience. I’m excited to begin searching once again.

Reflections is a series of posts in which I think more generally about my approach to and experience of reading.

New Fiction Uncovered column: ten short story writers

My second guest column for Fiction Uncovered is now live. I want to cover my main reading interests in these columns, so this one is a celebration of short stories. It’s a list of ten recommended contemporary British short story writers. It’s not a ‘top ten’ as such, because of course there are more than ten authors whom I could have included – and I’d love to hear about your favourite short story writers in the comments.

Further reading

Here are links to my reviews of some of the stories and books mentioned in the column:

The Silver Wind by Nina Allan
Ten Stories About Smoking by Stuart Evers
‘Butcher’s Perfume’ by Sarah Hall
The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales by Kirsty Logan
The Stone Thrower by Adam Marek
This Isn’t the Sort of Thing that Happens to Someone Like You by Jon McGregor
Mr Fox by Helen Oyeyemi
Leading the Dance by Sarah Salway
Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical and Everyone’s Just So So Special by Robert Shearman
Diving Belles by Lucy Wood

Keep up to date with my Fiction Uncovered columns here.

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.

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

BBC National Short Story Award: Conclusion

So, that’s the entire shortlist blogged. The first thing to say is that the judges put together a very good list; certainly I wouldn’t begrudge any of the five stories their place. David Constantine was the winner, but, for me, it would come down to a choice between the stories by Aminatta Forna and Jon McGregor. And, much as I appreciate the subtlety of McGregor’s psychological portrait, I think the elegance and economy of Forna’s telling gives her story the edge.

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.

The BBC National Short Story Award 2010

Tomorrow is National Short Story Day; to mark the occasion, I’m blogging the shortlist of this year’s BBC National Short Story Award – namely, these stories:

David Constantine, ‘Tea at the Midland’
Aminatta  Forna, ‘Haywards Heath’
Sarah Hall, ‘Butcher’s Perfume’
Jon McGregor, ‘If It Keeps On Raining’
Helen Oyeyemi, ‘My Daughter the Racist’

The above titles will turn into links as I make my way down the list.

What I won’t be doing, however, is trying to predict the winner, because that was announced at the end of last month. David Constantine’s story was declared the winner; as it’s first on the list, I’ll be interested to see what standard it sets for the rest.

EDIT, 21st Dec: I’ve now written a concluding post in which I pick my winner.

Further links
Podcasts of the shortlisted stories
The Award at BBC Radio 4
The Award at Theshortstory.org.uk
Booktrust, which administers the Award
Comma Press, publishers of the anthology

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