by Jon McGregor
194 pages, Bloomsbury
Review by Marc Nash
I really liked Mcgregor's 2003 debut "If Nobody Speaks Of Remarkable Things". A panoramic view of one Northern English town in all its ordinariness, quietly and unobtrusively narrated. It was as if the characters were scared to push themselves forward, too shy to take on the burden of holding the narrative. I missed McGregor's follow-up. So here I arrive at his third book, equivalent to a rock band's 'difficult third album'.
Robert Radcliffe's body is found at home. Discovered by a myriad of the dropouts who use his residence as a safe place to congregate and shoot up or take slugs of drink. Robert's life has fallen apart when his wife and daughter leave him and his own alcoholism rages on unabated, but he likes the company of these waifs and strays, including his own teenage daughter who returns to him as a junky. Against the backdrop of what happens to his body in death, we get various stream of consciousness points of view of the people who, well not knew him as such - being far too wrapped up in their own degradation - but who shared a proximate space with him.
Firstly all the voices sound exactly the same. Yes one might not end his sentences with a full-stop, another has that particularly annoying Merseyside affectation of adding the word 'la' for 'lad' or 'lass', but their tone is the same. This may be legitimate given that it is a like-minded community of addicts and drop-outs, but the language is not as searingly beautiful as other critics have claimed. For example, each character is forever searching for a word that should really be beyond them, yet which they manage to recover: "Seems like she might have a, what you call, a propensity". Sorry, people do not talk or interiorise like this. And it happens constantly right up to the last page.
If the language isn't credible, I just didn't care for any of their plights either. Robert falls apart too easily and unsatisfyingly. He lives on take outs and although the cost of this is mentioned, it is never satisfactorily explained where his money comes from. The sundry addicts are just drab and equally unsympathetic. Welsh injected humour and a hyperrealism into his take on junky mentality. Burroughs wove fantastical literary tapestries from his. Selby Junior had lashings of energy and pent up failure and inadequacy in his. This bunch lack for any of these saving literary graces. Unlike in his debut book, McGregor totally fails to find any dignity or nobility of spirit in these weeners and whiners. There is nothing wrong in a literary study of the lumpenproletariat, the untermesnchen of society, but this gives no insight into where they derive from.
There is one and one only, wonderful section in Even the Dogs where an ex-soldier recounts the tale of his being wounded that prefigures his drug addiction. Serving in Afghanistan, he is hit by a roadside bomb and lies bleeding in a poppy field that mocks him even as he is given morphine for the pain that begins his path to addiction. Prone in the field, the trip he has is not the hallucinatory collage of associations and images of early addiction when the drug still delivers a charge, but a crystal clear unraveling of the network that gets the poppies from the field to the cut drug sold on the streets of his home town in Britain. Had the rest of the book modeled such imagery and insight, it might have had something to offer. As it is, McGregor's linguistic style seems to have exhausted its own form of expression, as it cannot sustain the material. Time for him to move on and try something stylistically fresh methinks.