The power of the unsaid

08/03/2010

Bianca Winter evaluates the work of Jon McGregor


Jon McGregor will be reading at the Broadway cinema on Tuesday 9th March 2010

Jon McGregor's novels have a habit of getting under the skin, as though the hands absorb the words on the page by osmosis. The first three books, despite their diverse subject matter, had a similarly powerful effect on me, imbuing me with an understanding of the resonance of the unspoken.

McGregor has created a host of rich and complex characters: a young woman narrates part of the story in If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things; David curates a story as a hangover of his profession in So Many Ways to Begin; Robert is the central figure in Even the Dogs, who in life and death is surrounded by others who are united in their subservience to their addictions – Danny, Laura, Mike, Heather, Steve, Ben... These characters all have a remarkable and individual way of concealing something of themselves, of not-telling, of failing to find the right words or of being failed by words.

 Jon's debut won the Betty Trask Award

In If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things a young woman has a secret, one that can't remain concealed for long, but who can she tell, and how? She needs help, but doesn't know who to turn to, or how to talk about what is happening to her.

'I told him... that I hadn't been able to tell anyone for a long time and I wasn't sure why it had been so difficult. And that when I had told my mum she'd been polite and indifferent and I didn't know what she really felt. I told him that I thought she'd be shocked or cross or upset, but that when she was none of these things I was actually unsurprised... I said all of this very quietly, and I was amazed to hear the words coming out at all, like butterflies wriggling through net curtains.'

The young woman meets the twin brother of a young man that lived on the same street as her when she was a student, the young man who tried to prevent a tragic accident on the street on the last day of summer, as they were packing up to go home. The new acquaintance tells the young woman things that she did not know about his brother, and her understanding and memory of that time begin to unravel as she wonders how we can miss such remarkable things. The story of the accident, and of the young man, is told by an omniscient narrator, who sees the tragedy from different residents' perspectives and offers a glimpse of lives bound together by place and events.

'He thinks about her, at this moment, in her house, a few thin walls away, packing her life into boxes and bags and he wonders what memories she is rediscovering, what thoughts are catching in her mouth like the dust blown from unused textbooks. He wonders if she has buried any traces of herself under her floorboards. He wonders what those traces would be if she had. And he wonders again why he thinks about her so much when he knows so little to think about.'

 Like his debut, So Many Ways to Begin was longlisted for the Man Booker prize

In So Many Ways to Begin David is a museum curator, fascinated by the provenance of objects. In his early twenties, he discovers that the woman he assumes is his mother did not give birth to him, which prompts a desire to learn his 'true' beginnings. David seems convinced that this fact somehow changes his life, and he searches as though for something lost. He and his wife, Eleanor, are locked in a kind of profound melancholy, and both are reticent to confide in each other the depth of their hurt.

'...he had no answer when Malcolm asked him what was on his mind so much these days, and he could only smile and pretend to look embarrassed when Anna said odds on it's a woman and they all laughed. It was easier to let them think like that. He wouldn't have known where to begin if he'd wanted to tell them what it really was.'

'This isn't me though David, she said to him once, despairingly. This isn't what I'm like. She waved a hand around the bedroom, at the heaped bedclothes, the empty mugs, the drawn curtains... But mostly she denied there was even a problem. It's nothing, she'd say, when he asked. I'm okay, really, I'm fine. I just need some rest. Or she'd say it's not you. There's nothing you can do. I just want to be left alone a while.'

'These were things that shouldn't have been discussed, no matter how often someone said, are you sure? Or, is everything really okay? Or, you shouldn't keep things bottled up you know. But he sat with Anna on the bus and told her about it.'

David 'curates' his life story, creating a collection of significant objects that form part of a narrative. The idea of selection and editing inherent in the practice of curation undermines the notion that there could be a single true story for each person. It's clear that David builds a narrative that is simply one way of telling his story, which suggests not only that there are so many ways to begin, but also that there are so many ways to continue: it also undermines David's obsession with authenticity, because the experience signified by the object is fluid and subject to interpretation.

'The real story, he knew, was more complicated than anything he could gather together in a pair of photo albums and a scrapbook and drive across the country to lay out on a table somewhere. The whole story would take a lifetime to tell. But what he had would be a start, he thought, a way to begin. What he had would be enough to at least say, here, these are a few of the things which have happened to me, while you weren't there.'

 Will this be the novel which wins McGregor the Booker?

In Even the Dogs Robert is a squatter in the flat where he started a family. He loses his wife and daughter after losing his job, and they are slowly replaced by people seeking shelter now and again, people who become a new kind of family (one who take advantage of him perhaps as well) and who eventually remove Robert's reasons for leaving the flat at all by running errands for him. At first, Robert hopes that his family will return, but as time passes, Robert becomes less able to help himself.

'He woke up and saw her looking at him. It was confusing. Who was it... And then he realised. It gave him something like a pain in the chest, a pain which near enough swelled and sucked in air as he looked at her and realised just what he'd missed and just how much he'd failed, at this precise fucking moment, to be what she wanted him to be. He had no idea what to say.'

'Robert didn't say much about what had happened... He didn't say much at all.'

'All these questions we want to ask. But we can't and. We say nothing.'

Robert's friends demonstrate a wilful reluctance to speak when expected to. In therapy sessions, they are expected to talk honestly and openly about their lives in order to obtain the chemicals that they desire to veil their thoughts and feelings. There's a sense of the futility of forced words in tackling an addiction.

'Speaking up once was enough to get a tick on the court order. Sat there, waiting for it to finish while the woman went on about remembering they always had choices, and not getting trapped in the past. Ben remembered that he had a choice to keep his mouth shut and wait for the end of the hour or whatever. He was good at waiting.'

In every untold story and in each buried emotion, I find myself: the reader. I wonder what I would do, how I would feel; I recall all those times that I have been unable or unwilling to speak; I remember speaking and still not being understood; I empathise with the power of a set of circumstances, and the way a situation can impair my ability to communicate. I imagine those characters, their internal speech – the rehearsals, the word-searching, the frustration – and I find that I can empathise, and those characters become more real: I have made them more real.

I think that a memorable book always leaves room for the reader: it needs to matter, to mean something to the reader, or how else would it earn its place among the sprawling shelves of the brain's storage system? McGregor exquisitely captures the ultimate impotence of words as expressions of our emotions: some things can only be felt, and not related. Even when we can articulate our thoughts and feelings, we all reserve the right to keep something of ourselves to ourself.

Jon Mcgregor is in conversation with Ross Bradshaw on the 9th March 2010, 6.30pm.

Broadway Cinema, Broad Street.
Tickets from the Broadway Box Office, 0115 952 6611
 

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