Over my holiday I read "Even The Dogs" by Jon McGregor. I've not quite finished it yet but that will at least prevent me from giving away spoilers. I am not sure I would want to give any spoilers anyway because it is unrelentingly grim so far. Perhaps there is a happy ending but both you and I will have to read it to find out.
I was introduced to Jon McGregor by the book group I was part of during my PhD. I think "If Nobody Speaks Of Remarkable Things" was the first book I read for the group. At that time of my life, about eight or so years after finishing my English Literature A-level, I had not had to read a book that I had not chosen for myself for quite a long time. I found it to be a complete shock. I can still remember reading about half that book straight out of the amazon packaging.
After that I had his next novel "So Many Ways To Begin" on my shelf unread for a while as I wrote up my PhD1 and I finally got around to reading it once I'd finished my corrections. Reading a novel in the evenings after work is a unique pleasure, a kind of escapism that I am now long used to but new to me at the time2. It is a bittersweet love story that shows how unresolved issues in peoples' lives can undermine and destroy relationships. I realised later when I re-read it that it contained numerous warnings that I should have heeded myself. All the best novels do.
What makes McGregor's novels stand out for me is the way that is able to get into his characters' heads. The prose that he writes is this joyous cascade of thoughts that tumble out all over the page. It is remarkable how precisely he is able to match the rhythms and intonations of thoughts, though perhaps not surprising as the aim of the writer has long been to try and completely capture human experiences so that another might live them.3
"Even The Dogs" is no exception. It begins with the discovery of a man's body found in his derelict flat and as the consequences of this unfold linearly, those who knew him explain how he came to be there and how their lives had become so intertwined and similarly ruined. This is all achieved using the thoughts and memories of the people involved, who are nearly all alcoholics and junkies so you get very disordered and chaotic descriptions of what went on. Sections of the prose often end mid-sentence and sometimes they repeat, folding over themselves, detailing the obsessions and thought processes of these people who have been pushed to the very furthest periphery of society.
The novel boils with both rage and sadness. The sections where characters remember sessions of talking therapy and interactions with case workers are seared with a sense of incredulity both for the sincerity of those "there to help" and the fact that know they are there to "get another script". The description of life on the street is as relentless and as bleak as you could hope to imagine, and is utterly convincing in its realisation. It made me realise that even in a society where no one should be homeless or hungry or left in the grip of drug or alcohol addiction, people do still fall through the cracks. I don't feel qualified to say how I think these people should be helped. However, the way that you experience the pivot points in characters' lives through their thoughts and memories made me realise that one of the best things that we can do is to prevent similar pivots happening in the lives of those people that we encounter. This is something I want to write about in more detail later.
Because of the subject matter, the book is not a pleasant read but because of the quality of the writing, it is thoroughly compelling. Here's a short excerpt from page 108 of my copy:
Waiting for the gear to cool in the syringe, and peeling back your clothes to find a vein. Stroking the skin on your arms, running cold steady fingers down the pulsing cords of your neck. Easing your trousers down and spreading your legs to find the bruised and scabbing entrance wounds along your fem. There, or there, or there. Hushed and holding your breath.
Waiting to feel the gear hit home, those long seconds between sticking in the pin and the gear doing what it does to your body and your brain and whatever else, your, fucking, soul. Waiting for all that pain to just get taken away. Wiped away, washed away. Or waiting for the meth to seep into you and get rid of that rattling for a few hours more, get rid of all the things that come up on you with the sickness. To hold you for the few hours while you work on getting sorted again. To keep the troubles away. The fucking troubles. The things that come to mind when you rather they didn't come to mind, certain things. Certain things which if you're not careful they all come pouring out the same way your guts come pouring out when you get sick, when you go too long without getting sorted. Comes pouring out of you. When you rather it didn't. When rather none of it came to mind.
Waiting outside the chemist's all them mornings, Mike and Danny and Heather and Laura and Bristol John, Stevie, Maggie, Ben, necking our little paper cups of meth, draining the thick green syrup and licking our lips and Mike going Eh now if it weren't for this stuff there'd be a what's it called a like uprising or insurrection or something you know what I'm saying.
It's the opium of the masses is what it is pal.
His most recent book "This Isn't The Sort Of Thing That Happens To Someone Like You" is a collection of short stories. It won't be available in paperback until February next year but I will be eagerly picking up a copy when it is.
Ah, the Waterstone's 3 for 2, stealthily slipping books on to my shelves between 1999 and 2010.↩
Presumably my ability to distinguish between my PhD and a "proper job" points to a deep defect in my personality (or at least explains why it took me so long).↩
I feel a great urge to cite Proust and his madelines here but until I have taken my tanker trip around the world and read "A la recherche du temps perdu" I will resist this temptation. Or at the very least until I have read "Proust Was A Neuroscientist".↩