One of my favorite short stories is Luigi Pirandello’s beautiful, brief “A Breath of Air.” An old man, paralyzed by a stroke, sits in his bedroom, while the life of the household stirs around him. The old man seethes with anger and resentment, and on this particular day he is unusually perturbed. Everyone seems to be acting strangely. His little granddaughter enters the room, and is annoying and unruly—she runs toward his balcony, whose glass doors she wants to open. His daughter-in-law, who comes in to remove the child, seems not quite herself. Even the old man’s son seems different: he uses a tone of voice that the patriarch has never heard before. What has happened? Are they all in league against him? When he asks the servant why she is sighing, she laughs, and he angrily dismisses her. Later, he confronts his son, who assures him that nothing is going on, nothing has changed. But in the early evening, as a perfumed breeze gently pushes open the balcony door, he understands: spring has come. “The others could not see it. They could not even feel it in themselves because they were still part of life. But he who was almost dead, he had seen and felt it there among them. . . . That was why they had all behaved differently, without even knowing it.”
I thought of Pirandello’s story while reading “Reservoir 13” (Catapult), the fourth novel by the English writer Jon McGregor. Prosaically enough, it is a portrait of an English village during the course of thirteen years; the book awards roughly twenty pages to each year. Prosaically enough, nothing much happens. True, at the start of “Reservoir 13,” a teen-age girl, Rebecca Shaw, goes missing; search parties are dispatched, divers plunge into the river, a helicopter scans the moors, the police stage a reconstruction of her last movements. But Rebecca is never found, and the novel isn’t really about this loss; on the contrary, McGregor delicately labors to show with what terrifying ease the quick pulse of life displaces the lost signal of death. Life grows over death, quite literally; the dead are at our mercy. The villagers continue the rhythms of their lives: they farm the land, run the pub, tend the shops, and teach at the school; they grow up and marry, they procreate, divorce, and die.
More implacably even than this human tempo, nature has its own ceaseless life rhythms, and it is in McGregor’s incantatory, lingering account of the annual rise and fall that his book achieves a visionary power. Like the Pirandello of “A Breath of Air,” McGregor is alive to subtle shifts in the natural world—to the breath that quickens and kindles in spring, to the steady, hazy lengths of summer and the downcome of autumn, and then the slow abeyance of winter. He sees nature in its constancy and its change, and he marks the transitions of the seasons, doing so in a repetitive, choric manner that displays the change as constancy. Before him, in the English tradition, come the Hardy of “Tess of the d’Urbervilles,” the Lawrence of “The Rainbow” (whose opening pages bring alive the Biblical rhythms of generations), and the Woolf of “The Waves” and “Between the Acts.”
In “The Waves,” Woolf returns, at regular intervals, to painterly, almost ritualized descriptions of the sun’s passage, on a single day, from dawn to dusk: wedges of prose like the divisions on a sundial. In the same way, McGregor uses certain repeated sentences as crossing stones, to measure and navigate his distances. Each new year (also the start of each new chapter) begins in the same way: “At midnight when the year turned there were fireworks.” Throughout the novel, he returns to an identical image of the river that flows through the village: “The river turned over beneath the packhorse bridge and ran on towards the millpond weir.” (The novel carries an epigraph from Wallace Stevens: “The river is moving. / The blackbird must be flying.”) And, very beautifully, he watches time and light lengthen and shorten. In the first year after Rebecca Shaw’s disappearance, in April, the novel poses this question: “How was it she hadn’t been found, still, as the days got longer and the sun cut farther into the valley and under the ash trees the first new ferns unfurled from the cold black soil.” All is transition: “There were cowslips under the hedges and beside the road, offering handfuls of yellow flowers to the longer days.”
All this risks making McGregor seem a more ethereal novelist than he is. He understands that the novel is fed by fact and social detail, by human beings and their foolish motives—the mulch of the actual. His work is significant, and often surprising, because he wants to mix the mundane and the visionary, and because his books don’t settle down into conventional forms: in his understated English way, McGregor is a committedly experimental writer. His first novel, “If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things,” published in 2002, when he was twenty-six, tells the story of an English street in an unnamed northern city. Borrowing from old realism and newer modernism, McGregor activates the privilege of roving omniscience, as he peers into kitchen windows, back gardens, upstairs bedrooms. The novel is a repetitive collage, awarding each character, or household, only a few sentences or paragraphs before swerving away elsewhere. We meet an exhausted graduate student; some young people who have just come back from a night of partying; a man recently diagnosed with lung cancer; kids playing cricket in the street.
McGregor’s first novel received a lot of excited attention (like his second and his latest book, it was long-listed for the Booker Prize), but in comparison with his later work it seems showy; it glistens with anxious youthful effort. The sentences are self-consciously lyrical, but not quite brilliant enough to earn their inflation. There are moments of subtlety, but they have to be dug out of the style. And the book is uneasily poised on the lip of a conceit: the street, we learn, is being described just before a climactic and terrible moment, withheld until the end of the book.
McGregor’s early triumph came with his third novel, “Even the Dogs” (2010), which won the 2012 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. That book is also about a community, but one very different from the fairly wholesome “Penny Lane”-like tapestry of his first novel. “Even the Dogs” is about a group of people that most novels, and probably most readers of novels, avoid or fail to see properly—young drug addicts and alcoholics, the desperate unemployed, drifting from hostel to support housing and on to makeshift squat, roaming around town looking for the next fix, or just for something to eat. We are in an unnamed city somewhere north of London, and again the narrative moves freely between different centers of consciousness. There is formal daring, too: parts of the book are narrated by a collective “we,” a chorus of unillusioned witnesses who, we gather, are dead, and are watching their afflicted friends from beyond the grave. As the novel opens, this chorus of shades is looking at the corpse of a man named Robert, a middle-aged alcoholic who has been found dead in his flat. The spectral witnesses follow the emergency services as they wrap the body in plastic, tag it, and take it outside to a waiting van. In the course of the book, we learn something about Robert’s abbreviated life—his service in the British Army, his marriage to a woman named Yvonne, his alcoholism, and how his daughter Laura became a heroin addict. We travel with the invisible chorus as they crowd into the morgue; with them, we witness the autopsy. The novel closes in the form of a transcript, the record of the official inquest into the death of Robert Radcliffe.
“Even the Dogs” is a ferocious book, at once intense and alarmingly unsentimental. What is described is so painful, sordid, and hopeless that it is hard to read at times. For long sections, when we are not seeing events through the dead eyes of the ghostly chorus we are in and out of the tumbling mind of Danny, an addict friend of Robert’s who discovers the dead body. Fearing the police’s inquiry, Danny panics and takes off running, accompanied by a dog named Einstein, and spends a long time searching around town for Robert’s daughter, to tell her what has happened. But he is also looking for drugs, because “the rattles” are taking hold, and he needs to score. Roving Danny is the narrative device that allows us to gather impressions of the city, and to get a sense of Danny and his cohort, and their tough life on the streets. The lyricism of the first novel is cut back to bone-hard demotic, McGregor sounding at times like an English version of James Kelman’s bleak immersion in Glaswegian despair and rebellion, “How Late It Was, How Late”:
Waiting outside the night shelter for them to open the doors. Hanging around for hours to make sure you get your place. . . . Waiting for the chemist to open to get the daily script. Waiting to score when it seems like no cunt can get hold of it, the way it was before Christmas, all of us loading up on jellies and benzos to keep the rattles off. Too much to handle if you score on top of all that and you’re not careful. But careful aint really the point.
Waiting in the corridors at the courthouse for your case to be called. Waiting in the cells. Ben waiting in the cells for three days over Christmas, rattling to fuck in that concrete cube and racing for his dig when they finally let him go.
McGregor’s third novel is scrupulously brutal, and full of sadness. Grounded in the language and particularities of its cruelly deposed characters, it nevertheless amasses a rich picture of a certain kind of urban English life, gray and impoverished, peopled by the dead, and the pale near-dead—“the boarded-up petrol station with the weeds where the pumps used to be, weaving up through the estate between the railway and the ringroad . . . past all those white walled houses with cars parked in the gardens, and the low wooden fences mostly broken, and ugly-sounding dogs jumping up behind the thin front doors. Two lads waiting by a phonebox on the corner, pacing and fidgeting and looking around so he said You waiting to score?”