Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13 stepped out life in a small town, year by year, over the 13 years since a teenage visitor, Becky Shaw, went missing. One of the most powerful aspects of the novel was the lack of sensationalism about the disappearance; it was mentioned in the first year or two, but faded into the backstory. Occasionally a piece of clothing would turn up or a memory would be stirred, but it was merely incidental.
So the Reservoir Tapes is a companion piece. In that first year, we have 15 narratives from 15 different people regarding Becky’s disappearance. Bookended by the two parents, there is puzzlement, sadness and a great deal of indifference demonstrated by the town’s residents.
I believe this was first conceived as a series of short radio broadcasts, so each narrative is roughly the same length and self-contained in terms of telling a story with a beginning, a middle and an end. Each narrator has a quite different voice, each has an agenda…
Just like Reservoir 13, the pitch is gentle, subtle and beguiling. There is as much told through reading between the lines, spotting what is not being said, as by the words themselves. This is a perfect companion piece that adds significantly to Reservoir 13 without taking anything away.
I loved Reservoir 13 but I'm really not sure why.
Do you know those letters that friends used to send at Christmas with all their news? The kind of hypnotic/soporific way all the news blends into one storyline, the banal and the significant presented with equal weight? Because that's pretty much what Reservoir 13 is, times thirteen.
Rebecca Shaw, a teenage girl, goes missing. Each chapter of the novel reports another year since her disappearance, depicting the life of the village and its surrounds. There are couplings, fights, feuds. There are foxes and fieldfares. There is a rhythm to the year's cycle, broken by the human action in the village and on the moors and around the 13 reservoirs that surround the village. Despite the passage of time, it is timeless.
And as every year passes, the memory of Rebecca Shaw and her disappearance dim. But every couple of years, some trace of her turns up, often unnoticed. Children grow up. Marriages are made and broken. One of the villagers is naughty and goes to prison, then returns. There is nothing of any great consequence to the world, although the little pieces of nothing are enormous for those involved, for a while. People are born and people die.
The novel is a masterpiece of holding multiple threads together, drip feeding them over time as matters progress and then letting them fade when they are done. Some of the lines run for years; some are over and done quickly. The characters feel real, the place feels real, the reader feels almost like God watching over it all. It really is spellbinding, even though it is so inconsequential. This is the bit that I cannot fathom: the writing is pedestrian and journalistic (almost Robinson in Space-like); the suspense is minimal; the plot is thin. So how and why did this get so much under my skin?
I don't think this is the best book of 2017, but it must be quite close up there. It is unusual without being demonstrative. It's not quite like anything I have read before.
This book follows the life of a boy (David) growing up, getting married, finding out a family secret, becoming a father, being made redundant, and finally, just being old. And there's not much more to it than that. The book just ends. There's no resolution. It just ends.
There's a couple of points in the book where there could have been a climax, but he seems to mostly be a quiet man of inaction, and things just fade away over time, which kind of takes the shine off him.
There's nothing outright bad about this book- the writing is relaxed, it's easy to read, it plods along nicely. But it does just that- plod. Nothing wrong with that, but there's no pizzaz to it. I imagine he set out to write a book about a couple rather like anyones parents and to tell the ordinary story behind their lives. His mothers secret does make him stand out, but it's stressed how ordinary that is, how much more common then you'd think.
The structure is nice- he's a museum curator, and each chapter is headed with an item, and the year it's from. It's as if you could see all these items laid out, and there'd be telling the story of his life.
But the problem with this book is- why his life? Perhaps he's decided that he wants to write about the ordinary? but there's a reason why we read about the extraordinary- we want to escape our own lives.
I've read his first book as well, which was well written and readable, but again, I'm not sure if much happened. I think my overall opinion of Jon McGregor is he's definately able to write, but does he have anything to write about?
John McGregor was rocketed into fame a few years ago by his debut novel, If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, which was greeted with critical acclaim and listed for The Booker. His follow-up, So Many Ways To Begin, didn't disappoint either: I wrote a short review of it on a book group I used to belong to (http://palimpsest.org.uk/forum/showthread.php?t=2716&highlight=jon+mcgregor+ways+begin). The subject matter and style were different but both novels had in common a haunting, fragmented style. If Nobody Speaks... was strikingly poetic, sharply metred phrases jumping out and conjuring up vivid sights and sounds while maintaining a trance-like rhythm. So Many Ways was less overtly lyrical but still a stunning book.
Even The Dogs, McGregor's third novel, combines both elements. There are stretches that could have come from a poet laureate, and others that are more sparse, but there is a characteristic style - the story is related for the most part in the way the protagonists speak, in their argot and in unpolished bursts rather than perfectly formed, grammatically correct form. So there are unfinished sentences drifting off into nowhere, strands fraying and snapping like worn threads like the lives shortened, distorted, ruined or prematurely curtailed. Much of the action is conveyed in a desultory, hopeless fashion, so punctuation is largely absent, simulating the fading, incompleted lives and relentless roll of events. And the first person plural narrators remain ghostly and ethereal - they are the friends of the newly deceased Robert, following the discovery of his body and its fate, and whispering in the shadows about their own lives. The reader knows the narrators don't really exist - their presence in the restricted access areas of the cordoned-off police site, the mortuary and the post-mortem room make this apparent. They are just a watchful presence - or absence - accentuating the loneliness of Robert's last few days and the bleakness of the lives lived by everyone in that circle.
But first - the story - and don't let the depressing sound of it put you off. The novel is centred around a group of junkies and alcoholics, many of whom have no home, some of whom have procured temporary accommodation in hostels. There is Robert who is already dead on page one. Robert was a chronic alcoholic. His wife Yvonne left him many years previously, taking their daughter Laura. Since then, Robert had hardly left his flat. He let his junkie and alcoholic friends spend time and even doss out there as long as they went out and bought his food and drink for him - with his own comfortable/inexplicable supply of money. He had become morbidly obese due to his diet of junk food, vast amounts of alcohol consumed and his lack of exercise.
The story opens with the police breaking down his door and finding Robert's body. They had been summoned by a busybody neighbour who reported not seeing or hearing the usual people around for several days, and who had been alerted to a bad smell by other neighbours.
Unbeknown to the police, one other person had seen Robert's body after death. This was Danny, one of the gang, who had climbed in through a window as the gang were wont to do when Robert was unable to hoist himself up from his chair to open the door. Danny is a vulnerable young man. He was brought up in children's homes and separated from his brother. The only constant in his life is his devoted dog Einstein.
Danny has feelings for Laura. Laura is Robert's daughter, taken away from her father's home by her mother all those years ago. But Laura returned to her father years later, when she found living with her mother and step-father intolerable and didn't wish to emigrate with them. When she first returned to see her father, she was a clean, well- groomed, healthy girl who was shocked to find Robert in the state he was in. She disappeared off for another year or two, hanging out at festivals and becoming hooked on drugs. Then she returned to her father and merged into his circle, sleeping in a hostel but shooting up at Robert's.
Mike is a disturbed junkie who is almost certainly schizophrenic. He is paranoid and has ideas of reference - he believes others are spying on him. He has auditory hallucinations. He has spent time in a psychiatric hospital but prefers life on the street, dealing and taking smack.
Ben is a damaged young man. Like Mike, he was brought up in care. He kept running away from his various foster homes but was always returned until he hit sixteen and could live an independent life. His only known relative is a sister in Brighton, but she is angry at him for not speaking out as a child when - she insists - he was aware that she was being sexually abused. Ben has a supercilious demeanor which masks violent, even sadistic depths. He will beat people up for the sake of it and even gleans a twisted pleasure out of torturing animals. Deep down he's a lost soul, like so many of the other characters here. He loses himself in junk and violence.
Steve is an ex army man, traumatised by his time in The Falklands. He is an alcoholic and Robert's intermittent confidant.
Ant is a junkie who hangs about with Steve. Like Steve, he's ex army, having done a stint in Afghanistan where he lost a leg. He's been to prison and is violent.
Heather is older than most of the others. She is a junkie and has no qualms helping Laura shoot up in Robert's home. She lives in supported housing but spends most of her time at Robert's. She talks about having been in a band, but she was really only a hanger-on. As with several of the others, she is ruthless in getting what she wants.
There are others who flit in and out of the picture - the shuffling, mumbling Sammy, for example, an alcoholic who seems to spend most of his time in the harsh elements, numbed by drink. But all are as trapped in the inescapable web of their tawdry lives as each other. They have no incentive to get clean because all they have to return to is this. Their lives are devoid of hope or joy other than the transient highs of crack or junk. This cast of wrecked people are sliding down an endless spiral. Occasionally someone like Laura will declare she's going to go clean, but this is met by hollow laughter by the others who know how difficult it is.
It is to McGregor's credit that he has crafted a compelling story out of these bleak ingredients. The story begins with an end - the end of Robert's life - and then follows both the cold, clinical facts of what happens to Robert's body - transportation to hospital mortuary, identification, post-mortem, cremation - and the intertwined lives of his friends. How could a man die alone and lie undiscovered for days? Where were these people who cared about him? How and why did Robert die?
I was struck immediately by the stark poetic resonance of McGregor's prose. Right from the start you know you're in the hands of someone who understands the power of words; someone who visualises, feels, hears, smells and tastes with hyperacuity, and is able to express what he senses in immediate, potent language. Here's the second sentence:
'The air is cold and vice-like, the sky a scouring steel-eyed blue, the trees bleached bone-white in the frosted light of the sun.'
This first part, yawing and lilting from one part of the street to another, all ignorant or indifferent to the tumultuous tragedy that's taken place in the home of one individual, is reminscent of If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things; the life of a street unfurling slowly like a bud, all its constituent parts progressing along their own path. The shivery, wraith-like narrators - ghosts of the past - observe what is happening in present time and rustle knowingly about their past. Moods are evoked instantly. We spin from the gruesome details of Robert's dead presence ( 'The swollen and softening skin, the sunken gaze, the oily pool of fluids spreading across the floor. The twitch and crawl of newly hatched life, feeding' ) to memories that shift and shimmer in the background. The brief happy period in Robert's life, when he was in a mutually happy relationship with Yvonne, segues rapidly into the disintegration of their joy, home and life together. McGregor's training in film is apparent here, where the rapid decay brings to mind those speeded films of fruit ripening then rotting from an early Peter Greenaway film:
'They sit there in the bath, the mirror clouding over with steam and the tap dripping quietly into the still water, and we watch the new wallpaper begin to fade. Sunlight comes in through the kitchen window and the open kitchen door, falls against the striped pattern at the far end of the hall, and bleaches the colour away. The front door blows open, and exhaust fumes from the road drift in and brush against the walls, leaving fine layers of dirt stuck to the traces of grease left by trailing hands...The steam from the bath curls out into the hallway, easing the wallpaper away from the wall. Peppered spores of mould thicken and spread towards the ceiling. Rainwater seeps through the worn pointing on the front of the building and pushes through the plaster, the damp spreading outwards like an old bruise. The varnish on the doorframe cracks as the timber swells and softens and gradually rots away.'
Robert's life - and those of the others - rots away in much the same way; in barely perceptible steps as they slump and fall into their desolate lives of self destruction.
The appearance of Robert and Yvonne's daughter, Laura, is relayed in a similar fast forwarded way and offers a glimpse of hope:
'Crayon scribbles appear, low on the wallpaper by the heaps of shoes and boxes of toys. Dated felt-tip stripes creep up the wall by the doorframe, tracking their daughter's growth a thumb's width at a time. Tiny shoes nudge in amongst the adult-sized ones, and bigger shoes take their place. Tea-stains the colour of old photographs splash across the wall, lingering long after the broken cups are cleared away.'
But the spirit of optimism is short-lived: although memories of happier times glimmer into view occasionally, dark portents of violence loom ominously:
'A dent the size of a fist or a forehead is hidden by a framed school portrait...The door is kicked from its hinges. We can hear, faintly, Robert and Yvonne in the bath, splashing each other... But when we look, there's no one there, and the tiles are still cracked...and the sink has still been pulled away from the wall...The door to the small bedroom has been kicked from its hinges...The framed pictureshave been taken down, the glass smashed on the floor and the photographs torn into small, fluttering pieces.'
We are not led to believe that Robert ever attacked his wife or child; the signs of destruction seem to indicate the impotent frustration, rage and grief he felt when Yvonne and Laura left.
The tale flicks from the point of view of Danny to that of Laura or Steve or Ben. Poignancy and pathos appear, as when Danny recalls his memories of the day he was taken into care as a small boy, but are suppressed before they become bathos or sentimentality. Jigsaw fragments of childhoods are thrown up, the missing pieces pointing to the gaps in these lives.
Throughout the story, McGregor half develops his characters, but purposefully keeps them partly mysterious. We learn a little about why they've ended up in the situations they're in, but personal responsibility isn't taken completely away. Some of them are irrevocably twisted or damaged; others - Robert, Danny, Laura - maintain the core of self which might help them escape their lives if they don't self annihilate first.
Would real homeless junkies find McGregor's portrayal patronising? I hope not. The protagonists never sludge together into one amorphous mass because their distinctive characteristics are retained. Would they object that their lives aren't as devoid of happiness and fulfillment as McGregor suggests? Maybe, but then McGregor isn't talking of those drug addicts who are able to maintain a home, relationships and lives. These are the real underclass, those individuals who live for nothing but their next fix and who have nothing much else to look forward to. And there are plenty of these people under every railway bridge in big cities.
MgGregor doesn't employ the crude, earthy humour used by Irvine Welsh in Trainspotting to retain readability. His is a much more fragile affair altogether, a Ming dynasty vase compared to Welsh's hearty and solidly appealing Neanderthal pot. For this reason Even The Dogs is not as entertaining as Welsh's work, it doesn't raise belly-laughs, but it has more to offer on a deeper plane. The poetry is always throbbing beneath the surface, breaking out at the most unexpected times, as in McGregor's description of a deserted sink estate marked for demolition as wearing 'Black scorch-marks like smudged mascara around the gaping windows of burnt-out flats.' That's not to say there aren't occasional flashes of sour, black humour, as when Danny contemplates the number of times Mike has tried to cadge money from strangers to attend his 'dad's funeral'.
The title of the novel comes from when Steve is persuaded to drive aid to Bosnia by a counsellor he has a crush on. A crooked official at the border tells Steve he shouldn't continue to the town he is aiming for because 'There, even the dogs are dead.' It brings to mind the wonderful song by the equally fabulous Associates where Billy MacKenzie croons 'Even dogs in the wild could do better than this... even dogs will protect and will care for whatever means most to them.'
Grim but true - the most intelligent life on earth can send rockets to the stars but we can't eradicate homelessness and misery even in our most developed countries.