With This Isn’t The Sort of Thing That Happens To Someone Like You, Jon McGregor takes a deserved break from novel-writing – but never fear, this, his first short story collection, is no thrown-together effort to easily capitalise on his Booker nominations and general critical acclaim. Rather, This Isn’t The Sort of Thing That Happens To Someone Like You is a long, thematically-coherent and ambitious book that ought to impress fans of Even The Dogs, as well as anybody else who’s got a penchant for stark, bleak, prophetic fiction.
There’s thirty stories here, some as short as a sentence, others spanning as much as thirty pages, and they’re all set in or within shouting distance of the English Fens, the large, low wetlands that cover much of the east coast of the country. Each story, in fact, is tagged with a place-name, and a map on McGregor’s website locates them. Though they cover a vast array of plots and preoccupations, there’s nonetheless a distinct atmosphere that pervades the book – a sense of catastrophe, endings and aftermaths – that makes it quite a dense read. This is exacerbated by what’s perhaps an intentional choice (or perhaps a tic of McGregor’s style): the inclusion of a large proportion of unnamed characters. For me, this meant that the stories, in retrospect, bled somewhat into one another, a result which was compounded by a selection of rather vague titles (‘Vessel’, ‘Close’, ‘Thoughtful’), meaning that, after a few days, I struggled to remember which story was which. But lest this sound like a criticism, read on: my overall sense, finishing the book, was of a loud multitude of cacophonous Fenland voices competing to be heard. Some of the stories (‘Supplementary Notes’, ‘The Last Ditch’, ‘The Cleaning’) appear to be set in a violent, desperate future (a hint of post-apocalyptic misery), while others (‘Looking Up Vagina’, ‘Wires’, ‘The Chicken And The Egg’) are more comic and more contemporary – but taken as a whole, McGregor’s stories gather together a scary vision of the present and future of the east of England.
Thirty stories makes for a long collection. McGregor mixes flash fiction amongst longer stories nicely – the one-liner, ‘Fleeing Complexity’, was perhaps my favourite – and, of the longer stories, I particularly liked the second one, ‘In Winter The Sky’, which is a structurally (and typographically) ambitious piece, running, simultaneously, two narrations of the same event, one in prose, one in poetry. Many of the stories, including this one, examine silence – either the narrators skirt around some momentous event, or the story is structured so that the reader has to fill in the gaps. This is most apparent in the list stories – ‘Supplementary Notes To The Testimony’ and ‘The Last Ditch’ – and in ‘What Happened To Mr Davison’, where, like in David Foster Wallace’s Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, an unheard questioner prompts the narrator’s responses and the reader must interpret what’s left unsaid. Then there’s stories like ‘The Cleaning’, which presupposes knowledge of some catastrophic even, wherein we see the characters trying to deal with what’s been left behind. Not all the pieces are tricky or oblique, though: ‘We Wave And Call’ is straightforward and tragic, and Wires (previously reviewed here https://bookmunch.wordpress.com/2011/09/27/a-fantastic-introduction-to-the-work-of-five-very-talented-writers-the-bbc-national-short-story-award-2011-anthology/ ) is, as I said, engaging and colloquial.
With a collection this long, though, it’s probably not surprising that some pieces are weaker than others. ‘The Singing’ and ‘I Remember There Was A Hill’, for instance are poetic, but perhaps not as compelling, narratively, as some of the others. I couldn’t make my mind up about ‘The Remains’ – it’s either very clever or not fully developed, almost like a compact summary of the middle section of Bolano’s 2666. The final story, ‘Memorial Stone’, is simply a list of place-names, and though it’s a very apt close to this book, it’s pretty identical to similar artworks by Richard Long and musician Richard Skelton. Still, I haven’t seen it in fiction before, so there’s no point nitpicking.
Any Cop?: I don’t think this is a collection to suit everybody, though writers ought to love it. It’s enormously ambitious, formally interesting and thematically bleak. There’s very few happy endings. But if you’re up for the challenge, it’s very compelling. In his novels, McGregor’s refused to stick to a formula, and it’s good to see that he remains as innovative in his short fiction, too.