Jon Mcgregor: This Isn’t the Sort of Thing that Happens to Someone like You
- Jon McGregor is a young (36), highly thought of British writer, author of three successful and critically acclaimed novels, the first of which, “If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things” was long listed for the Booker Prize before winning the Betty Trask and a Somerset Maugham Award.
- This is his first short story collection. Most of the 30 have been published before. “Wires” was the runner up for the 2011 BBC National Short Story Award; “ If It Keeps on Raining” was runner up in 2010; an early version of “In Winter, the Sky” appeared in Granta magazine in 2002, “Which reminded her, Later” in Granta in 2007.
- In April 2010, interestingly, he wrote a lengthy piece, “A Long Way Back”, for the Guardian on a TV film about a trip back to Ireland by a group of elderly homeless Irish emigrants resident in Nottingham.
- The stories vary widely in length from thirty pages to one line. The unifying element is Lincolnshire, one of England’s largest counties, located on the east coast, rural, agricultural and sparsely populated. It’s quite flat topography and proneness to flooding present some distinctive landscapes and skyscapes.
- Some of the stories reflect the title, i.e. something unusual or unexpected happening to ordinary people. Others concern or involve people who are , in some way, not ordinary. There are examples of eccentricity, alienation, violence (actual and hinted at), helplessness and regret. Flooding occurs as a theme in several stories, both the threat and the result. Three stories in particular stand apart from the rest, in language and tone, either directly or indirectly pointing to a terrible event , a war or occurrence of apocalyptic magnitude.
- Well worth looking at also are two pieces on You Tube, one featuring an interview with the author, the other him reading one of the gems in the book, “We were Just Driving Around.” His website is also quite entertaining and his piece on the book features some interactive elements (maps, photos of the stories’ locations).
Some Analysis and Comments
- The shortest story, “Fleeing Complexity” comprises one line: “The fire spread quicker than the little bastard was expecting.” Per the author, it is about a boy setting fire to a barn, and hints at unforeseen and possibly tragic consequences. Understating, or just hinting at events never touched on characterises a number of the stories.
- “Wires” has been the subject of much critical acclaim. A sugar beet crashes through the windscreen of a young woman’s car on the motorway. She reaches the hard shoulder where two apparent Good Samaritan motorists in a battered blue van tell her what a narrow escape she has had and tell her they have phoned the police. She is persuaded to leave the car and cross the barrier and climb the embankment (“it’s safer”). While waiting she broods on her relationship with her boyfriend, finally deciding to end it and moves to retrieve her phone from the car. But her arm is held tight by one of the two men, while the other waits, looking tense, beside some nearby trees. The sense of menace is palpable.
- “If It keeps on Raining” is also highly regarded. An eccentric lives on a river bank. He is obsessed with the prospect of flooding, whether from the river after rain or after a biblical deluge which never stops. He has survivalist aspirations and is building a tree house and plans a raft in preparation for the coming catastrophe. He is the laughing stock of the boat club, at the recollection of which he shows flashes of an inner brooding violence. But he remains convinced in his belief of what is coming. A much shorter story in the collection, “The Cleaning,” deals with the practical aspect of attempting to clean up after a major flood.
- “In Winter The Sky” – my personal favourite – has been rewritten for the book. A young farmer, decades before, accidentally knocked down and killed a pedestrian late at night. He buried the body, which is not found for years. After it is discovered, he has a conversation with his wife. He tells her that “They needed to bring things out into the open and deal with the consequences and stop trying to hide what it was doing to them both.”
Thus the narrative, which occupies the left hand pages of the story. But the facing pages consist of poems – her poems – with language scored out (final drafts or finished). As well as presenting highly evocative and haunting images of rural Lincolnshire, they flesh out the story. They form a continuous whole with phrases lifted from or associated with the facing narrative. We learn that he blames her – it would not have happened had he not been returning from a date with her – that they are haunted by his memory of the man’s arms lifted skyward when he was hit, that the event has corroded their relationship.
The language of the poems merits mention. It is strong, lyrical, describing the sky, seriatim, in different seasons, the landscape, the topography, some waterway names, the effects of flooding (again the flood theme), and the sky’s aspect during different times of the day. The final image is of “the great ship of Ely Cathedral just visible across the water.”
- “Which reminded her, Later”, and its associated story, “Years of This, Now” tell of a vicar’s wife, frustrated in her own career and stuck with the downside of her husband’s job (vocation). A sponging house “guest” marks a type of watershed. When, in the second story, the vicar has suffered a major stroke, the wife, with the prospect before her of decades as a carer, decides – she is off.
- Several stories feature people who are not ordinary. A woman seeks her father’s coat in a lost property office, but there is something strange about her, in “She was looking for this Coat”. An oddball has a phobia about finding a chick in an egg in the story of the same name. It eventually costs him his marriage. In “French Tea” another eccentric sits in a café babbling senselessly about how to make, or not make, a good cup of tea.
- Some stories feature bereavement, actual and threatened. “That colour” concerns someone coming to terms with his partner’s creeping Alzheimers. In “Airshow” a widowed grandfather, coming from the funeral, is riven and distracted by his loss. In ”The Singing” a bereaved woman is coming to terms with the hollow emptiness of life, “with so many things to be done and no one now to do them for.” In “Vessel “ a newly widowed woman faces unwanted and disturbing approaches from a male acquaintance. In the grimly repetitive “The Remains” a man is haunted by the failure to locate the long missing body of his loved one, wife, partner or daughter. Her remains “have yet to be found”.
- Loneliness is explored, passim. In “Close” a spinster has a near miss with romance on holiday in Japan –or was it all just in the mind? In “Looking up Vagina” a lonely schoolboy, who doesn’t fit in and is bullied in consequence, is perceptive enough to realise (or deluded enough to fantasize)that his destiny is above and beyond his yobbish schoolmates. In “New York” the lonely and alienated existence of migrant workers everywhere is touched on through an account of migrant agricultural labourers from Eastern Europe– a current feature in rural England – awaiting collection after work.
- Violence, in different manifestations, is another recurring theme. “Keeping Watch over the Sheep” features an estranged father trying to access the nativity play featuring his young daughter. He is a known and marked man. Led away in handcuffs, he is unreconciled to reality. He cannot understand why his daughter is reduced to tears by his antics or where his marriage went wrong, though he does concede that “breaking things had never helped.”
- In “Dig a Hole” – a two paragraph story – there has beenviolence and a man has been hurt. In “Thoughtful”, another two paragraph story, there is violence aggravated by drink. In “What happened to Mr Davison”, something serious, perhaps tragic, has happened to a landowner after four people took the law into their own hands; a mechanical digger is involved. While chastened by the outcome, the four do not regret their original action.
- “We Wave and Call” encapsulates the book’s title. Truly this isn’t the sort of thing that happens to someone like the person featured. A youth is on holiday, possibly in Croatia, with friends, and is swimming and snorkelling. His friends want to leave, but he is enjoying the warm sea, just floating, and tells them he will catch up in a minute. He continues to soak up the sun lazily. Then he realises time has passed, and sets out for shore. But the current has carried him. It is much further than he thought. He begins to panic, but reassures himself that he can make it and thinks about his friends, the apartment, drinking beer, and how he will describe his close shave to those back in England. Meanwhile , and despite his efforts, he is drifting farther away, towards the next bay; “sometimes it happens like this.”
- “I’ll buy you a Shovel” sees two ex-cons, casually employed, plot and carry out a minor theft on the fringe of a wedding party. One of the longest stories in the book, we are introduced to several of the pair’s traits and life history, with minor acts of physical violence carried out on each other, fuelled by drink. An undertone of sexual menace obtains (one at least appears a sexual predator). The action takes place over a week in which RAF jets are repeatedly using the nearby sands for bombing practice, growing in intensity, with, in consequence, the two judging the big one to be imminent.
- Three stories are markedly different from the rest. Do they reflect the author’s political views? They concern war or civil strife or preparations for or the aftermath of an apocalyptic event of some sort. There have already been hints elsewhere , as in “Shovel” “I remember there was a hill”, a very short story, sets the scene. A small village seems deserted, devoid of life, as if in the wake of a neutron bomb. The public phone rings. It is answered. Shortly afterwards two planes fly over. An explosion is heard, then silence.
- “The Last Ditch” is difficult to read. It is very much tongue-in cheek and is not, properly speaking, a story at all. It is, rather, couched as a briefing note for an in-house meeting of military/intelligence officials tasked with planning for self-sustaining mini communities to withstand/survive major societal breakdown. The note goes into considerable and quite boring detail regarding defences, natural and otherwise, food, waste disposal, energy, medicines, reserves and weaponry.
There are sections also on the type of outside threat such a community could anticipate as well as one entitled, delicately “Managed Exit”, i.e. the liquidation, voluntary or otherwise, of the community to avoid capture, enslavement, torture, rape and extraction of vital information. “Any proposed method must be a) quick, b)low pain/distress where possible, c) non-rescindable, d) enforceable/enactable by others if req.” An addendum makes clear that the controller of the briefing note’s author is sceptical of much of its content, particularly the last piece, while taking on board much of the basic intelligence information provided.
The cause of societal breakdown is left unsaid but McGregor points obliquely at an energy supply crisis or some outcome of acute global warming. It is sobering to reflect that someone, somewhere, in the real world may be working on plans along these lines.
- In the same vein, but an altogether much stronger piece is “Supplementary Notes to the Testimony.” Here Armageddon of some form has taken place, with Britain referred to as “the former UK” and tracts of south east England depopulated. Large numbers of British refugees have been living on the Continent, some, ironically – and obviously intentionally placed by the author – in Sangatte, including the “Appellants” who are giving the testimony. After five years in Sangatte they spent eight or nine years in “ a series of displaced persons camps in the Netherlands” before being expelled as “ the draft peace agreement was in force.” The “Notes” – and they are just that – suggest some of the means and routes for refugees to return to the Lincolnshire area, an area much changed in the aftermath of events.
- The last piece in the book is entitled “Memorial Stone”. It consists solely of lists of place names, presumably in Lincolnshire, grouped by ending. Thus we have places ending in “well”, “ham”, “Bank”, “Steeping”, “ton”, “field”, “worth” grouped. These are followed by “Moore”, “Marsh”, “by”, “try”, “thorpe”, “gate”, “dyke”, “Leake”, “beck”, ”brook”, “bridge”, “ford”, “Ferry”. There is then a group of place names containing the name of a saint; the final two sections are of places ending in “End” and some others. The piece seems designed to be read aloud – there is an attraction to hearing the names read out. I am reminded a little of Seamus Heaney’s “Weather Forecast” poem.
- Finally, a little gem. “We Were Just Driving Around.” (The clip of the author reading the story is available on You Tube.) A car with young people is driving around, just driving around. Josh, the driver, is romancing about his plans for a shop making gourmet snacks. He gets slightly carried away trying to answer Tom’s practical objections to locating a business in a rural area (customer base, etc.). The music is loud; his voice is loud. They jolt over a small bridge, driving fast. Josh has a high pitched laugh and the decibel level in the car goes up. Amanda asks Josh to slow down a bit. “He turned round to ask what she’d said so that must have been how come he never saw the corner.”
- There is a certain organic unity about the book, diverse as the stories are. It should sell on the quality of the stories alone. Jon McGregor is clearly a very talented young writer about whom we will hear much more He has an older and wiser head on his shoulders than his years. His prose, his eye, his ear are all good. This book will cement his reputation.
- A good read? Certainly. Enjoyable? Definitely. A page turner? Certainly the reader’s interest is held. Would I buy it? Yes indeed.