The Visionary Power of the Novelist Jon McGregor

The Visionary Power of the Novelist Jon McGregor

Jon McGregor

The Visionary Power of the Novelist Jon McGregor

He mixes the mundane and the ecstatic, and refuses to settle into conventional form.

James Wood
November 20, 2017

One of my favorite short stories is Luigi Pirandello’s beautiful, brief “A Breath of Air.” An old man, paralyzed by a stroke, sits in his bedroom, while the life of the household stirs around him. The old man seethes with anger and resentment, and on this particular day he is unusually perturbed. Everyone seems to be acting strangely. His little granddaughter enters the room, and is annoying and unruly—she runs toward his balcony, whose glass doors she wants to open. His daughter-in-law, who comes in to remove the child, seems not quite herself. Even the old man’s son seems different: he uses a tone of voice that the patriarch has never heard before. What has happened? Are they all in league against him? When he asks the servant why she is sighing, she laughs, and he angrily dismisses her. Later, he confronts his son, who assures him that nothing is going on, nothing has changed. But in the early evening, as a perfumed breeze gently pushes open the balcony door, he understands: spring has come. “The others could not see it. They could not even feel it in themselves because they were still part of life. But he who was almost dead, he had seen and felt it there among them. . . . That was why they had all behaved differently, without even knowing it.”

McGregor8217s latest novel 8220Reservoir 138221 thrums with the soft gossip of life itself.
McGregor’s latest novel, “Reservoir 13,” thrums with the soft gossip of life itself.Illustration by Jon McNaught

I thought of Pirandello’s story while reading “Reservoir 13” (Catapult), the fourth novel by the English writer Jon McGregor. Prosaically enough, it is a portrait of an English village during the course of thirteen years; the book awards roughly twenty pages to each year. Prosaically enough, nothing much happens. True, at the start of “Reservoir 13,” a teen-age girl, Rebecca Shaw, goes missing; search parties are dispatched, divers plunge into the river, a helicopter scans the moors, the police stage a reconstruction of her last movements. But Rebecca is never found, and the novel isn’t really about this loss; on the contrary, McGregor delicately labors to show with what terrifying ease the quick pulse of life displaces the lost signal of death. Life grows over death, quite literally; the dead are at our mercy. The villagers continue the rhythms of their lives: they farm the land, run the pub, tend the shops, and teach at the school; they grow up and marry, they procreate, divorce, and die.

More implacably even than this human tempo, nature has its own ceaseless life rhythms, and it is in McGregor’s incantatory, lingering account of the annual rise and fall that his book achieves a visionary power. Like the Pirandello of “A Breath of Air,” McGregor is alive to subtle shifts in the natural world—to the breath that quickens and kindles in spring, to the steady, hazy lengths of summer and the downcome of autumn, and then the slow abeyance of winter. He sees nature in its constancy and its change, and he marks the transitions of the seasons, doing so in a repetitive, choric manner that displays the change as constancy. Before him, in the English tradition, come the Hardy of “Tess of the d’Urbervilles,” the Lawrence of “The Rainbow” (whose opening pages bring alive the Biblical rhythms of generations), and the Woolf of “The Waves” and “Between the Acts.”

In “The Waves,” Woolf returns, at regular intervals, to painterly, almost ritualized descriptions of the sun’s passage, on a single day, from dawn to dusk: wedges of prose like the divisions on a sundial. In the same way, McGregor uses certain repeated sentences as crossing stones, to measure and navigate his distances. Each new year (also the start of each new chapter) begins in the same way: “At midnight when the year turned there were fireworks.” Throughout the novel, he returns to an identical image of the river that flows through the village: “The river turned over beneath the packhorse bridge and ran on towards the millpond weir.” (The novel carries an epigraph from Wallace Stevens: “The river is moving. / The blackbird must be flying.”) And, very beautifully, he watches time and light lengthen and shorten. In the first year after Rebecca Shaw’s disappearance, in April, the novel poses this question: “How was it she hadn’t been found, still, as the days got longer and the sun cut farther into the valley and under the ash trees the first new ferns unfurled from the cold black soil.” All is transition: “There were cowslips under the hedges and beside the road, offering handfuls of yellow flowers to the longer days.”

All this risks making McGregor seem a more ethereal novelist than he is. He understands that the novel is fed by fact and social detail, by human beings and their foolish motives—the mulch of the actual. His work is significant, and often surprising, because he wants to mix the mundane and the visionary, and because his books don’t settle down into conventional forms: in his understated English way, McGregor is a committedly experimental writer. His first novel, “If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things,” published in 2002, when he was twenty-six, tells the story of an English street in an unnamed northern city. Borrowing from old realism and newer modernism, McGregor activates the privilege of roving omniscience, as he peers into kitchen windows, back gardens, upstairs bedrooms. The novel is a repetitive collage, awarding each character, or household, only a few sentences or paragraphs before swerving away elsewhere. We meet an exhausted graduate student; some young people who have just come back from a night of partying; a man recently diagnosed with lung cancer; kids playing cricket in the street.

McGregor’s first novel received a lot of excited attention (like his second and his latest book, it was long-listed for the Booker Prize), but in comparison with his later work it seems showy; it glistens with anxious youthful effort. The sentences are self-consciously lyrical, but not quite brilliant enough to earn their inflation. There are moments of subtlety, but they have to be dug out of the style. And the book is uneasily poised on the lip of a conceit: the street, we learn, is being described just before a climactic and terrible moment, withheld until the end of the book.

McGregor’s early triumph came with his third novel, “Even the Dogs” (2010), which won the 2012 International impac Dublin Literary Award. That book is also about a community, but one very different from the fairly wholesome “Penny Lane”-like tapestry of his first novel. “Even the Dogs” is about a group of people that most novels, and probably most readers of novels, avoid or fail to see properly—young drug addicts and alcoholics, the desperate unemployed, drifting from hostel to support housing and on to makeshift squat, roaming around town looking for the next fix, or just for something to eat. We are in an unnamed city somewhere north of London, and again the narrative moves freely between different centers of consciousness. There is formal daring, too: parts of the book are narrated by a collective “we,” a chorus of unillusioned witnesses who, we gather, are dead, and are watching their afflicted friends from beyond the grave. As the novel opens, this chorus of shades is looking at the corpse of a man named Robert, a middle-aged alcoholic who has been found dead in his flat. The spectral witnesses follow the emergency services as they wrap the body in plastic, tag it, and take it outside to a waiting van. In the course of the book, we learn something about Robert’s abbreviated life—his service in the British Army, his marriage to a woman named Yvonne, his alcoholism, and how his daughter Laura became a heroin addict. We travel with the invisible chorus as they crowd into the morgue; with them, we witness the autopsy. The novel closes in the form of a transcript, the record of the official inquest into the death of Robert Radcliffe.

“Even the Dogs” is a ferocious book, at once intense and alarmingly unsentimental. What is described is so painful, sordid, and hopeless that it is hard to read at times. For long sections, when we are not seeing events through the dead eyes of the ghostly chorus we are in and out of the tumbling mind of Danny, an addict friend of Robert’s who discovers the dead body. Fearing the police’s inquiry, Danny panics and takes off running, accompanied by a dog named Einstein, and spends a long time searching around town for Robert’s daughter, to tell her what has happened. But he is also looking for drugs, because “the rattles” are taking hold, and he needs to score. Roving Danny is the narrative device that allows us to gather impressions of the city, and to get a sense of Danny and his cohort, and their tough life on the streets. The lyricism of the first novel is cut back to bone-hard demotic, McGregor sounding at times like an English version of James Kelman’s bleak immersion in Glaswegian despair and rebellion, “How Late It Was, How Late”:

Waiting outside the night shelter for them to open the doors. Hanging around for hours to make sure you get your place. . . . Waiting for the chemist to open to get the daily script. Waiting to score when it seems like no cunt can get hold of it, the way it was before Christmas, all of us loading up on jellies and benzos to keep the rattles off. Too much to handle if you score on top of all that and you’re not careful. But careful aint really the point.

Waiting in the corridors at the courthouse for your case to be called. Waiting in the cells. Ben waiting in the cells for three days over Christmas, rattling to fuck in that concrete cube and racing for his dig when they finally let him go.

McGregor’s third novel is scrupulously brutal, and full of sadness. Grounded in the language and particularities of its cruelly deposed characters, it nevertheless amasses a rich picture of a certain kind of urban English life, gray and impoverished, peopled by the dead, and the pale near-dead—“the boarded-up petrol station with the weeds where the pumps used to be, weaving up through the estate between the railway and the ringroad . . . past all those white walled houses with cars parked in the gardens, and the low wooden fences mostly broken, and ugly-sounding dogs jumping up behind the thin front doors. Two lads waiting by a phonebox on the corner, pacing and fidgeting and looking around so he said You waiting to score?”

“Reservoir 13,” with its patient pastoral accretions, its descriptions of hedgerows and rivers and changing light, seems so utterly different a novel that one can wonder how the same writer produced both. But there are deep continuities. Once again, McGregor describes an entire community, from the vicar to the school caretaker, from the local potter in his studio to the sheep farmer on the moors. Again, we are somewhere in the North, in an unnamed place. Again, he omnisciently darts in and out of his characters’ lives, swerving away and then returning a few pages later, using this repetitive construction to build his gradual collage. And, again, he has written a novel with a quiet but insistently demanding, even experimental form. The word “collage” implies something static and finally fixed, but the beauty of “Reservoir 13” is in fact rhythmic, musical, ceaselessly contrapuntal. Most conventional novels, after all, are laid out rather like houses—a practical corridor leads to a set of illuminated rooms, the scenes and dialogue and characters’ thoughts all clearly delineated but also opening into one another, each narrative moment awarded its own deserved space. Even at the risk of a certain amount of repetitious boredom, “Reservoir 13” is nothing like this. There are no conventional scenes, because nothing is lingered on long enough to develop singly. There is little direct dialogue. There are no moments set aside for privileged epiphany or revelation. Instead, everyone is, as it were, crowded into one room; the narrative then proceeds with the gentle tedium of an almanac or a local newspaper report, mixing news of “events” in the natural world with their equivalents in the human realm:

In the beech wood the foxes gave birth, earthed down in the dark and wet with pain, the blind cubs pressing against their mothers for warmth. The dog foxes went out fetching food. The primroses yellowed up in the woods and along the road. The reservoirs were a gleaming silver-gray, scuffed by the wind and lapping against the breakwater shores. In the evening a single runner came silently down the moor, steady and white against the darkening hill. Gordon Jackson drove back from a stock sale and saw a man by the side of the road, his arm held out as though asking for help. . . . He stopped and asked if the man needed a lift. The man looked at Gordon and didn’t speak. At the parish council there were more apologies recorded than there were people in the room, and Brian Fletcher was minded to adjourn. But a decision needed reaching on the proposed public conveniences, so they went ahead. There were hard winds in the evenings and the streetlights shook in the square. Late in the month Miss Carter brought her class to the Jacksons’ farm for the lambing.

Two hundred pages later, the novel is still proceeding with this same imperturbable patience, the soft gossip of life itself:

At midnight when the year turned there were fires in three sheds at the allotments, and again they had burned out before the fire brigade arrived. At the school the lights were seen on early, and when Mrs. Simpson walked from her car and came into the staff room she was surprised to see Miss Dale already sitting there, working on a lesson plan and eating toast. They looked at each other, and Miss Dale asked if Mrs. Simpson had overslept. I don’t know, Mrs. Simpson said. I don’t, I don’t really know. She seemed confused. The nights were hard with frost. On the high frozen ground a ewe stumbled and died, and the buzzards came to feed. A smell of coal smoke hung over the village through the days. In his studio Geoff Simmons sat on the sofa and watched the last batch dry. He had left them out too long and they were cracking. . . . At the Jacksons’ the carers were coming only twice a week now. Jackson was finding it difficult to get out of bed again, but that was more down to the tremendous weight he’d put on than anything to do with the stroke.

Of course, “things happen”: the last passage alone discloses Mr. Jackson’s recovery from a stroke, and the slow stealthy onset of Mrs. Simpson’s ill health (probably dementia), which will eventually cause her early retirement. But because the novel is not centered on any single character or set of characters, it enacts a radical diffusion of emphasis. Our attention is directed not toward singular moments or events but toward the length of a life, and toward the ways in which each life interacts with someone else’s. “Reservoir 13” is a novel without a protagonist but filled with people. We follow many imbricated lives: the teen-agers (Lynsey, James, Sophie) who knew Rebecca Shaw (eventually they grow up and go to university, and some of them do not return to the village); the vicar, Jane Hughes, who has the usual Anglican pallor of faith (“she held out her hands in a gesture she hoped might resemble prayer”); Martin and Ruth Fowler, who run the local butcher shop, until the business goes under and the couple separate (Martin finds work at the local supermarket’s meat counter, while Ruth opens a fancy organic store in a more affluent town); Su Cooper, who works for the BBC and then gets laid off; Richard Clark, who works overseas as a consultant and returns to the village only to see his ailing mother (his two sisters, who have remained nearby, judge him for his long absences); and on and on, through thirteen years of sameness and change—“yesterday brought to today so lightly!,” as Elizabeth Bishop has it.

And there is, of course, a further diffusion—these human lives are seen in counterpoint to natural life, the different life rhythms pushed into the same time signature. When Mr. Jones, the school caretaker, is arrested for having child pornography on his computer, it has been raining for so long “that the cricket field turned into a bog and the bonfire display was called off.” When Richard Clark’s mother dies, the sheep have started to shed their wool, and the shearing is to begin. The almanac rolls through the seasons, and as it does, what beauties this novel discovers and creates, as profligate as nature itself! “In the mornings the air outside the Jacksons’ lambing shed was dashed with swallows.” When there is blasting in the quarry, the villagers hear “a low crumping shudder that shrugged huge slabs of limestone to the quarry floor.” Or this description of June nights: “The sun didn’t set so much as drift into the distance, leaving a trail of midsummer light that seemed to linger until morning.”

A way of narrating that might be merely whimsical if played with for a few pages becomes rigorous when practiced systematically over two hundred and ninety. McGregor’s book can sound cozy: the villagers and the natural world at their appointed tasks; a regulated, conservative, and somewhat impermeable microcosm; the dribbling gossip of small happenings. But McGregor’s uncanny evenness of tone, the unvaried repetition (the river turning over beneath the packhorse bridge), becomes, at length, a demanding kind of inquiry, not least because he is unafraid to court the reader’s boredom. Indeed, he plays with tedium; he teases us with it. The book might be the most prosaic story I have ever read (along with being the most English). We are taxed with lines like: “It was a good year for hazelnuts”; “At the allotments Jones planted onions.” Or: “Richard Clark’s mother had her upstairs room redecorated.” And: “Frank Parker submitted his report on verge maintenance to the parish council.” My favorite, a very English locution, has to do with weather: “There was weather and the days began to shorten.” But once the reader learns to slow down, learns to watch things grow (and watch things die), nothing is really tedious, nothing is alien. And everything belongs together. I can’t pretend to be very interested in Richard Clark’s mother getting her upstairs room redecorated, but it is a small part of the entire tableau. A few lines later, the window of this room is opened, to dispel the paint fumes, and “she could hear people walking up to the square, the faint background whisper of the weir, the sound of Thompson’s herd unsettled about something.” There the narrative pauses for a moment, as it does a few years later when Richard’s mother is lying in the hospital, frail and tiny, not long before her death, and is visited regularly by her son—McGregor capturing in one sentence an experience many of his older readers will recognize with pain: “Some mornings when he arrived he thought she wasn’t in the bed at all.”

That entire tableau is the little ecosystem of the village—the beech woods, the allotments, the pub, the school, the church tower, the cricket ground, the river, and the quarry. At night, far away up on the moor, you can see the lights of speeding cars on the motorway. The village may be physically beautiful, but its inhabitants do not always behave as handsomely: McGregor often adopts a passive construction (“The girl’s parents were seen,” and so on), to evoke a world of close-minded surveillance. This is a society built on the English arts of omission and indirection. Mr. Jones does his time for possession of child porn, and then rejoins the community, without great repercussion. Earlier in the book, his domestic arrangements are described thus: “Jones the caretaker lived with his sister at the end of the unmade lane by the allotments, next to the old Tucker place. His age was uncertain but he’d worked at the school for thirty years. His sister was younger and was never seen. She was understood to be troubled in some way.” McGregor is a masterly understater.

In the end, though, despite these occasional hints of critique, life is seen here as somehow beyond moral accounting, another remarkable achievement of the book’s slow, riverine form, and another subtle unravelling of what we think of as the conventional project of the novel. Down on the ground, moment by moment, life is, of course, made up of dilemmas, choices, and bargains. But seen from afar, or so McGregor seems to say, seen from a position of pagan omniscience, looked at in the way we might look at nature—as an unending cycle of birth and death and eventual obscurity—life appears more instinctual than moral, and as animal as it is human. Winter turns to spring: as in Pirandello’s story, part of life quickens while another part of life is dying. Above all, life blindly goes on, and Rebecca Shaw will eventually be forgotten, along with everyone else. 

Published in the print edition of the November 27, 2017, issue, with the headline “All Over Town.”

James Wood has been a staff writer and book critic at The New Yorker since 2007. In November, he will publish “Serious Noticing,” a selection of essays.


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