…Eisha can be President. I’ll be Secretary. (Hey, she can be in charge, as I’m a really good note-taker.) We’ll meet in the 7-Imp Treehouse. Snacks WILL be served.
It’s been a long time since I’ve done this, as I’ve been focusing so heavily on illustration at 7-Imp (picture books and illustrated novels), but I’m going to mention an adult fiction title today. And with the help of Eisha. You remember her, right? Oh you know you miss her. And it hasn’t been that long since she said goodbye.
There are reasons I stopped blogging about novels: Primarily, I burnt myself out on reading a novel and then turning right around to report on it. I still read ‘em, but I’m keeping them to myself. But Eisha and I decided to make an exception today. Rather, we decided back before Christmas to make an exception and accept an early copy of British author Jon McGregor’s newest novel, Even the Dogs. And that’s because we’re big ‘ol ginormous nerdy fans of his novels, and when he contacted us out of the blue to say he’d written a new one and would we be interested in reading it, why, we were most certainly intrigued. Eisha blogged here about his first book (2003), which she convinced me to read Way Back When (long before that blog post, which is itself rather dated anymore), and I fell in love with it just about as hard as she did. And then there was his exquisite, luminous second novel, So Many Ways to Begin (Bloomsbury 2007), which we…uh….tried to post about here. But Yours Truly screwed it all up. I’m a winner like that sometimes.
Bottom line: Jon McGregor, whom The Guardian has called “a hoarder, an omnivorous collector of perception and experience,” has become one of our favorite contemporary authors. So, hell to the YES we wanted to read his new book. And, as it turns out, the novel didn’t let us down.
Here’s how McGregor himself describes the book at his site:
It’s a novel about a man found dead in his flat. It’s about what happens to a man’s body after it’s found, and it’s about what happened to him and the people around him in the days and weeks and years leading up to his death. It’s dark, and raw, and mournful and exhilarating and edged – just – with a glimmer of hope.
He’s not kidding about that “just” there. This reads almost like a requiem, this intimate, spectral collection of narratives, told from varying perspectives, from a group of mostly homeless heroin addicts living in an unspecified city in England.
Now, see. TIME INTERLUDE. I’ve been sitting here at the computer for five minutes, trying to find the words to describe the writing, the distinctive rhythm McGregor achieves in this bold story. (I really did burn myself out before.) Let’s try this: This is a world into which I was completely and instantly immersed. McGregor writes about these down-and-out (to put it mildly) folks with great empathy, and his ability to show the passage of time with such lyricism and seamlessness blew me away, even in the very first chapter. In one moment, McGregor has whisked us back in time, and within a few paragraphs—given some fading wallpaper and spores of mold and seeping rainwater and cracking pipes—we see time hurl forward for our characters. Only to be taken back again. What sounds like a fractured narrative is, indeed, one. In the hands of a clunkier author, it could have been a disaster. But McGregor pulls it off gracefully.
McGregor shines his light on a group of folks, as mentioned, but the primary focus is given to the alcoholic found dead in his apartment at the novel’s opening. That would be Robert, whose adult daughter, Laura, has reappeared in his life, looking for connection but only finding addiction herself. Robert’s friends, likewise addicted to heroin, have formed a sort of family around him, and we get a glimpse into each person’s world as the big picture slowly unfolds — their sorrows, joys, failures, further addictions. And we get this as their spirits hover around Robert’s body, laid out in preparation for cremation (thereby providing him a sort of eulogy, as the Library Journal review points out). Author Patrick Lane has written about the book: “It is a remarkable novel, the disjointed, stuttering, fractured, staccato interwoven monologues, a truly brilliant weaving of plot and character, the tone exquisitely rendered, and the street people, their subterranean tribal solidarity, their feelings for each other, both brave and brutal, are captured beautifully. As one who has lived on the street, I can verify its honest take on the life there, the rhythms of the prose emblematic of the narrators. I haven’t seen a book recently that compares to the risks [McGregor has] taken here, something most contemporary novelists have neither the courage nor the talent to take.”
Now, I like that for how well it captures this novel, but also because Lane notes having once lived on the streets himself. I can attach that oft-used “gritty” to the novel—honestly, it’s not just gritty: It’s rasping is what it is—but I’d only be assuming that McGregor captured homelessness and addiction with great veracity, having not experienced either myself. But there’s Lane to not only nail the novel’s great strengths — but also vouch for its authenticity.
Here’s what Eisha has to say:
Jon McGregor is quickly becoming one of my favorite young authors. One thing I love about him is how he’s succeeded in crafting a unique authorial voice for each of his three novels. If you’ve ever found yourself cornered by the resident drunk at a dive bar, listening to his hopeless, bewildered ramblings well into the wee hours of the morning, then Even the Dogs will sound very familiar. However, McGregor manages to make poetry out of the most ordinary language — creating a halting, slang-riddled, stream-of-consciousness narrative flow that perfectly traces the stunted, broken lives of his characters.
The subject matter here is the harshest he’s tackled yet. These characters—junkies, alcoholics, thieves, and squatters—are desperately out of control, caught in an endless cycle of feeding and resisting their addictions, trying to keep one step ahead of the crushing reality of their lives. It’s not a pretty story, and it’s not fun to read, but there are haunting moments of beauty and nobility, occasional connections made between two lost souls, that are all the more remarkable for their decrepit surroundings.
Or, as The Guardian review notes, “in general the tone is unrelentingly grim, though not in a hectoring way: you’re simply immersed in the protocols of homelessness and addiction. Eventually the book offers competing explanations for both the nature of the voices and Robert’s end, bringing the curtain down with a light touch and no sense of copping out.”
Ah, no “copping out.” Indeed. For the absence of that, at the book’s close, I am also grateful.
Haunting. Disturbing. Gut-wrenching even. But a lyrical gift. If you read it as well, come back and discuss with us, won’t you?
As always, we look forward to what McGregor brings us next . . .