It is as if something bubbling under the murk is about to erupt [in Jon McGregor’s stories]. The bullies in “Looking Up Vagina,” the little bastard firebug, the dad with an injunction on him to keep away from his family in “Keeping Watch Over the Sheep,”…the collection as a whole is disquieting – rather like listening to the dark albums of one of McGregor’s favourite bands, Pulp. — Debra Martens
This Isn’t The Sort Of Thing That Happens To Someone Like You
Stories by Jon McGregor
Bloomsbury 2012, hardcover, 258 pages. U.S. paperback $16.00
I heard U.K. writer Jon McGregor read from his latest book, the collection of short stories This isn’t the Sort of Thing that Happens to Someone Like You, at the Bloomsbury Institute in London last April during an event for their Year of the Short Story. This was just two months before lightning struck and he won the prestigious International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award for his novel Even the Dogs, published two years before.
That night the soft-spoken McGregor read a couple of short shorts, including “She Was Looking for this Coat,” which represents his work in several ways. The story speaks in the voice of a first person narrator (a clerk at the public transport office in Lincoln), talks about an unnamed character “she”, and builds the story with an accretion of visual detail (“Herringbone was a word she used.”). The narrator hints “she” is suffering an anxiety beyond the loss of her father’s coat: “The way she was talking, I felt like asking her if she needed to sit down.”
In his first novel, If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, the characters are not identified by name but by the tag of a physical description: “Next door, at number eighteen, the young man with the blinking eyes leans out of his window and takes some final photographs of the street….” Half of the novel is told through this kind of description, through short passages that focus on inhabitants of a street by using both the scene frame and the zoom lens. The other half of the novel is told through the first person voice of a young pregnant woman, who is thinking back to that last day of summer while also moving forward into a new relationship. “And sitting here now, waiting, trying to be calm, all these things are rattling around inside my head, like coins set loose in a tumbledryer.” This novel is so good that I can’t believe it is his first.
McGregor continues to experiment in his second novel, So Many Ways to Begin. He builds the story through a catalogue of artifacts that are important to David, a museum curator – a brilliant blend of form and character. This accretion of story through short scenes is again used in his powerful third novel, Even the Dogs. In it, McGregor uses short sections within a section with great effect, giving us the various points of view and disjointed thoughts of those who knew Robert before his death. In all three novels, then, McGregor uses detail to open up a scene, and he prefers to keep his scenes short.
Of the 30 stories in This Isn’t The Sort Of Thing That Happens To Someone Like You, half are under 1,000 words, and of those, six are under 500 words. The collection includes nine stories at the other end of the spectrum, from 3,000 to 9,000 words. The shortest story is “Fleeing Complexity” and it goes: “The fire spread quicker than the little bastard was expecting.” This story is more complex than its length suggests. There is the situation, worrying us into wondering if the fire burns down a house or… There is the tough guy voice talking about “the little bastard.” What does the owner of that voice do to the little bastard? There is the title, which in turn was used as the name of a Granta competition for one-line stories, judged by none other than McGregor, who explains “what I’m looking for in a piece of fiction as short as this is something that gestures very simply towards a much larger story.” (Click here for his winning pick.)
What I look for in the short short story is the delivery of the Dave Eggers/McSweeney style punch. Like the opening story, “That Colour,” a two pager that conveys years of marriage in a bit of dialogue, and turns on the words that a character doesn’t say. She chatters about the autumn leaves; he asks her why she is surprised by something that happens every year. She says “It’s just lovely, they’re lovely, that’s all, you don’t have to.” And that is when the he of the story stops washing the dishes and comes to her, looks at the leaves and holds her hand. This is the same hopeful note that ended McGregor’s second novel, So Many Ways to Begin, the note that sounds our human imperfections and accepts them.
At the other extreme, the longest story (approximately 8,700 words) is also told in the voice of a tough guy. “I’ll Buy You a Shovel,” set in Marshchapel, is about two ex-cons who have been hired by a woman called Jackie to provide on-site security and maintenance. What they are working on, or not working on, is a ditch to improve a murky pond that its owners call a fishing lake. Beyond their caravan and ditch, there are two major events unfolding: a wedding celebration at the Stewart house and garden, and the preparations for war as shown by the increase of bombs being dropped on the Sands by the Tornados flying overhead.
The short sections in this long story cut between the present (the two guys going over to crash the wedding) and their pasts. The narrator talks about Jackie’s son Mark dying at war in a desert, that he and Ray knew Mark when they were young, when they were starting to do jobs that involved “the thing with the wires,” about the death of the narrator’s mother while he was in jail. As the wedding progresses and the Tornado bombings escalate, as the two men sit by a fire and drink while waiting for the right moment to crash the wedding, their anger bubbles up to the surface. There is a flatness to the narrative voice, that at once parallels the flat landscape (“Whoever called it Hilltop Farm must have had some sense of humour, round here.”) and mirrors the men’s emotions. It is as if they are cut off from the world and from themselves and the only emotion they know, can feel and express, is anger. Here is the narrator, finishing up his little story about his mother being buried in the wrong place.
Ray thought it was funny. The idea of moving someone like that, once they were dead. The idea of anyone giving a shit where they were buried once they were dead, was what he said. What he said as well was he’d buy me a shovel himself. That was when I told him to shut up. He said I will I’ll buy you a shovel. I said Ray, leave it. He said don’t worry about fucking legal process, I’ll buy you a shovel and you can dig up your mam. I said Ray fucking leave it, and I put him on his back and he stopped laughing then. p. 241
It is this flat narrative that puts a chill into such sentences as “Ray made sure he knew not to tell anyone.” Or when the narrator repeatedly says, on the wedding day, “Just the drinks, I say. Nothing else.”
I’ve been puzzling over why this story comes at the end of the collection. Each story is subtitled with a place in Lincolnshire and environs, on the southeast coast of England. Some of the stories take place in the fens, or marshlands that have been drained for agricultural use, a landscape cross-hatched by raised roads and ditches, by names like Sixteen Foot Drain. So, for example, the first long story in the collection, “In Winter the Sky,” features ditches and the use of a shovel by a man who is so unlike Ray and his friend that it hardly seems fair that his life is so affected by one wrong night. In this story, the wife’s poem runs on one side opposite the narrative, emphasizing the flatness of the landscape. An earlier version of “In Winter the Sky” was published in Granta as “What the Sky Sees.”
Apart from the obvious similarities, however, the collection as a whole is disquieting – rather like listening to the dark albums of one of McGregor’s favourite bands, Pulp. (He talks about his influences on his blog and in this Guardian article.)
It is as if something bubbling under the murk is about to erupt. The bullies in “Looking Up Vagina,” the little bastard firebug, the dad with an injunction on him to keep away from his family in “Keeping Watch Over the Sheep,” who is unable to understand that he is the one causing his daughter to look “pretty tearful and scared and what have you.” The angry neighbour in “What Happened to Mr Davison,” who does not regret what he did but admits “Clearly the eventual outcome of the resulting chain of events was tragically disproportionate.”
Nor is it only the men who simmer. The wife in “Which Reminded Her, Later” and “Years of This, Now” is angry with her vicar husband for years, because he doesn’t listen to her, because he is married to his work, and her eruption is all the more surprising. Because of this distancing anger, you cannot read “Wires” without feeling you are being mildly electrocuted. At face value, this is a simple story about Emily Wilkinson thinking she is about to die as a sugar beet comes through her car windshield. You read and you chuckle with her thoughts. And then it turns. She pulls over to the side of the road and two men come to her aid. Except that these two men could well be Ray and his friend. According to McGregor’s blog, the story borrows the title of a Philip Larkin poem about electric wires teaching cattle not to stray.
But the book is not only about angry people roaming around. There are other elements at work – such as rain. In “If it Keeps on Raining,” a modern day Noah prepares for the flood, while at the same time nursing his resentful thoughts at being separated from his children. “Supplementary Notes” is about refugees and “The Last Ditch” (playing on ditches of the fens and a last ditch effort) is a copy of civilian plans for disaster with commentary by the military. Finally, the last story is called “Memorial Stone,” and is a list of place names – perhaps those that will be flooded by the rising waters of climate change. Or as the narrator in “Shovel” puts it, “National emergency crisis or whatever…” And what he is telling us is that if we wear our anger at world inaction over climate change as a heavy coat that muffles our emotions, and take inappropriate action too late, then we could end up like Ray, burning our future for the stupidest of reasons.
Debra Martens writes at Canadian Writers Abroad. Her story publications include “A Change in the Current” in The New Quarterly (2006) and “The End of Things” in Grain, a winner of the 2002 Postcard Story Prize. Her story, “Waitress,” is forthcoming in Room. She lives in London.