Jon McGregor, This Isn’t the Sort of Thing That Happens to Someone Like You (2012)
Perhaps above all else, what emerges clearly from this collection for me is that Jon McGregor is a superb writer of the mundane. I suspect this is an undervalued quality in a writer (certainly I have undervalued it in the past); but This Isn’t the Sort of Thing demonstrates its value quite clearly.
The book’s opening piece, a two-page vignette entitled ‘That Colour’ is a fine example of what McGregor can achieve on a small canvas: while her partner (the narrator) washes the dishes, a woman looks out of the window and tries to describe the colour into which the trees are turning (“When you close your eyes on a sunny day, it’s a bit like that colour”). Sensing her apparent surprise, the narrator describes the process of chlorophyll breaking down in leaves; but the woman already knows that: “It’s just lovely, they’re lovely, that’s all, you don’t have to”. There we have two characters sketched briefly yet precisely – one thinking in practical terms, the other more intuitively – and the sense of an awkward emotional space between them. We can only guess what may have happened to create that space; but the simple gesture at the end, of the pair holding hands and the narrator saying, “But tell me again,” is enough to show that the gap between the couple is starting to be bridged. It’s a small but telling moment, depicted economically yet with a true sense of the way people talk around each other.
This Isn’t the Sort of Thing has a good number of these very short pieces (some just a few sentences long) which capture little ironies and significant details. ‘Airshow’ sees a family returning from a funeral, and deciding to take the grandfather to see his old station during the war – but there’s nothing much to see at the airfield, and nothing much that he wants to say. The family also goes past a current RAF base, where there’s a display of vintage aircraft; at home, the grandfather asks “just what it was those people with the binoculars had thought they might be waiting to see”. That one remark encompasses thoughts on the passing of time, and the transformation of the horrors that the grandfather would have seen into a nostalgic tourist attraction. ‘The Remains’ evokes the despair of losing a loved one through the use of dispassionate sentence-fragments which could all begin with the two words of its title (“Are believed to still be intact,” and so on). The piece ends with the phrase “Have yet to be found” repeated over and over – a truth inescapable on the page, as it would be in life.
[EDIT: Max's comment below prompts me to add, in case I've given the wrong impression, that there are also some longer pieces in the book - though a majority are ten pages or fewer.]
One of McGregor’s hallmarks in these stories is how, through language, he shows characters trapped in particular thought and behaviour patterns. ‘If It Keeps On Raining’ (which I wrote about previously here) focuses on a man building a shelter for the flood he’s sure is coming; we discover that he was a police officer at Hillsborough, who cannot let go of what he experienced there – the surging river reminds him of the surging crowd, and images of that day go around and around in his head. The narrator of ‘What Happened to Mr Davison’ is giving evidence at an inquest; they hide behind the rhetoric of officialdom to deflect attention from whatever it was that affected the titular farmer – but occasionally we catch glimpses of the real person underneath, who would like to be more forthright, though the circumstances (and perhaps also professional obligations) do not allow it.
McGregor’s stories are populated by often anonymous characters, at what may often seem at first to be unexceptional moments in their lives. But, time and again, the author takes us beneath the surface to show how pivotal those moments can be.
This book has been shortlisted for the 2013 Edge Hill Short Story Prize. Click here to read my other posts on the shortlist.