I’ve been wanting to put something on the blog for weeks now about the Barry Flanagan sculpture show at Tate Britain, because it’s very, very good. Also something about Country Noir, having recently read The Outlaw Album by Daniel Woodrell and Crimes in Southern Indiana by Frank Bill, to say nothing of listening to The High Country by Richmond Fontaine. And I wanted to mention, at least, the death of Christopher Logue. And movies – The Ides of March and My Week with Marilyn. But other things kept intervening and I kept delaying and delaying and then, yesterday, a proof copy of Jon McGregor’s new book, a collection of stories with the brilliant title [well, I think so] of This Isn’t The Sort of Thing That Happens to Someone Like You, arrived in the post and I knew, as soon as I’d started reading, that I was going to write about that.
A few stories in – not reading chronologically, but dipping here and there, a couple of the shorter ones first, to get the flavour, and after that pretty much pot luck – some titles, “Keeping Watch Over Sheep” or “We Were Just Driving Around” being particularly appealing – I realised that for some reason – the recent Turner prize award, possibly, that he was nominated for but didn’t win – I was thinking, while reading, about the paintings of George Shaw – there seemed to be a connection, even though the world, the landscape, Shaw’s depicting – the Tile Hill area of Coventry – is almost entirely devoid of people, whereas McGregor’s world – here largely the Lincolnshire of small towns and villages – Gainsborough, Grimsby, Welton – its topography laid out in the lino cuts that demarcate the sections of the book and mark out the details of the landscape – is all about people, IS people, their voices, spoken and unspoken, the conversations they hold, most often with themselves, sometimes endlessly, inside their heads. And the connection with Shaw is, I suspect, exactly in what we aren’t explicitly told, what we don’t see, the hovering feeling of unease that is created.
Some of the stories, as I’ve suggested, are quite short; the shortest a single sentence, a single line, the longest some 2o or so pages, but they all capture, no skewer their subjects, skewer them precisely/imprecisely with their own words. Precisely, because we not only hear them, but see them, where they stand, where they are; imprecisely, because a great part of McGregor’s art and skill is the art of suggestion, of giving us enough yet not too much, drawing us in and inviting – leading – us to fill in, create the missing parts of these stories, the other voices, other feelings, the rest of these stories for ourselves.
But let’s be a tad academic for a moment and roll in Roland Barthes [why waste those classes on critical theory?] his distinction between texts which are ‘writerly’ and those that are merely ‘readerly’. The readerly texts give us the whole picture – take it or leave it – everything there is; whereas the writerly texts, the writerly fictions, supply us with just enough information to engage us, invite us in – invite us to complete the texts, the pictures, for ourselves, become writers, as it were, ourselves, in the very act of reading.
These are writerly texts.
One of the longest stories is “If It Keeps on Raining”, which was runner up in the BBC National Short Story Award in 2010 and, thereby, broadcast on Radio 4, and I have to confess I was a little disappointed when I heard it; my mind kept wandering, in fact, and I found myself irrationally impatient for it to finish [and that not only, I like to think, because my own entry somehow mysteriously fell short of the short list – “Handy Man”, you can read it in Ambit 204] Yet on the page, taking it, I suppose, at your own speed, giving it your own voice, the repetitions and near-repetitions, and there are many, carry the story along beautifully, mirroring the constant flow of water, the ebb and flow of tides, the way the man’s thoughts jounce around in his mind, obsessive, delusional: he is building a tree house out of pallets, a sort of ark against the coming flood, the ark into which he will haul to safety his two red-haired sons – the sons he is forbidden, it seems, by injunction, by shift of circumstance from seeing – much as the father in “Keeping Watch Over The Sheep” is banned from seeing his daughter in her first ever nativity play at school.
So there you have it. Part of it, at least. I’m still only a little over half-way through, and there are stories – a few – that look to be quite different to the ones I’ve described, but much as I couldn’t wait to start reading this collection, I couldn’t wait to start writing about it.
McGregor, it seems to me, just gets better and better.