‘A beautiful, gut-wrenching eulogy for the people adrift at the edges of society’ – Even the Dogs by Jon McGregor

Jon McGregor’s third novel is a beautiful, gut-wrenching eulogy for the people adrift at the edges of society – the drug addicts, the homeless, the alcoholics.  Even the Dogs opens with a door beaten down and a body, Robert Radcliffe’s body, carried away; a host of invisible narrators then follow the authorities to the morgue and the inquest, and as they wait to find out what happened to their friend, their own stories unspool.  As the novel progresses, the amorphous speaking ‘we’ breaks down into a collection of discrete individuals – Danny, Laura, Steve, Mike, Ben, Ant –  and we see how they came to live as squatters, junkies and drunks.  The circumstances of Robert’s death pull together as we watch these other lives collapse and implode, and Robert’s own story slowly emerges, in all its lonely hopelessness. 

There’s nothing I didn’t love about this novel.  The physical book itself is beautifully presented, and the wasteland pictured on the front cover is as haunting as the lost voices clamouring to speak between the pages.  McGregor’s characters speak as a collective, bearing witness to Robert’s life and death, and then as individuals, explaining their own circumstances to anyone who will listen.  The place in which they live is never named, but I’d venture a guess at an East Midlands town, perhaps Nottingham; each voice, though, bears the distinctive trace of its roots, be it Scotland or London, and the way McGregor succeeds in making each one flow from the collective memory of the ‘we’ without jarring is incredibly skillful.    Danny is the first distinct individual we meet, and his section is the longest uninterrupted monologue; it drifts back to the multitude from time to time, but doesn’t branch out into another particular voice.  Danny sets the scene for us – a world of waiting, needing, longing and desperation, of unlikely friendships and betrayals, of pacing through the long grass by phone box, alone and unnoticed, waiting for a fix.  McGregor’s use of the first person plural reminded me of Joshua Ferris’s And Then We Came To The End; though the two novels have little else in common, both merge the individual and the crowd to demonstrate the shared nature of experience, a community of failure and despair.  This company of suffering is where light enters McGregor’s tale: in the face of the dispassionate medical and legal procedures involved in identifying Robert and the facts of his life and death, the invisible gathering of mourners watch over him and imagine a suitable funeral – a wake, a candle-lit vigil, a Viking’s pyre.  The novel shows how each of their lives is falling apart, but that together they can offer one another succour.  So despite the pain and death and addiction, it’s not an irredeemably bleak novel – there’s love at its core, and friendship, and the yearning for a more perfect life.
 
McGregor uses a very distinctive style here – sentences that run for pages and then cut off abruptly, mid-clause; colloquialisms; isolated one-line paragraphs.  His use of time is particularly mesmerising:  in the first chapter, the ambulance’s journey from Robert’s flat to the morgue runs concurrently with Danny’s dash about town, trying to hunt down Laura, Robert’s daughter, his attempts to score some gear, to find somebody else who can explain what happened to Robert.  At the same time, we see the early years of Robert’s marriage, the decaying of his flat, his wife’s pregnancy and the growth of his daughter, all in a beautiful speeded-up montage, ending when his body reaches the morgue, when his wife leaves, when Danny contacts his dealer.  It’s so beautifully orchestrated, it seems almost balletic – if an incredibly dingy and miserable ballet.  And the language itself is stunning – describing Robert’s flat, as he lies dead on the floor within:  ‘as the whole flat begins to cool, the condensation hardens into thin tracings of ice, and splinters of light from the dawn outside crack slowly into the room.’  Later, on the derelict buildings and squats around the town: ‘Black scorch marks like smudged mascara around the gaping windows of burnt-out flats.’

McGregor has mentioned Faulkner and James Kelman as influences on the writing of this novel – I can see echoes of As I Lay Dying, certainly, and the brutality of street-life and the immediacy of the characters’ voices is something you can also find in Kelman.  But there’s an originality in McGregor’s prose, though, that combines an observant and poetic mind with an ability to show the reality of street-life without romanticising or condemning it.  His characters’ lives are tragic, but this isn’t a cautionary tale or an anti-drugs warning – it’s simply the recognition of the lives of the invisible inhabitants of our towns and cities, and a reminder that beauty and love can be found in all circumstances. 

Any Cop?: This is a sad and bleak tale, and no mistake – in fact, I dare you not to cry at least once while reading.  It’s about as powerful as anything I’ve read in months, and I have a feeling McGregor’s voice will be echoing around my head for a long time to come.  I’m thinking prize nominations aplenty – get out and read it now so you can stay ahead of the game.

Valerie O’Riordan

3 comments

  1. […] Clare Hey: My favourite books of the year included Amy Sackville’s The Still Point for its intense atmosphere and beautiful writing, Paul Murray’s Skippy Dies for making me laugh, Emma Donoghue’s Room for making me think, and Veronique Olmi’s Beside the Sea for being short but powerful. I also enjoyed cooking from Nigel Slater’s Tender I and II – his writing can be as rich and enjoyable as any novel, especially when you’re hungry and the garden is full of vegetables you have grown yourself. Next year I am looking forward to Elizabeth Day’s Scissors, Paper, Stone and to the paperback of Jon McGregor’s Even the Dogs. […]

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