“Unremittingly compelling throughout” – Lean Fall Stand by Jon McGregor

IMG_6May2021at151207Thomas, Luke and Robert (‘Doc’) are stationed in Antarctica: Thomas and Luke are post-doc students out in the field to fine-tune GPS survey data, and Robert’s their General Technical Assistant. While it’s the younger men’s first time south, Robert’s been here season after season, ever since he dropped out of his own PhD programme upwards of thirty years previously. This particular day, the trio have finished their work and paused so that Thomas can take some photos. The weather suddenly worsens, and they lose each other. Something happens to Robert – his language slips, his words are all wrong. But the others need him: the ice is breaking up.

Spoiler alert: it turns out Robert’s had a stroke, and the latter two thirds of the book are set mostly back in Cambridgeshire where the perspective switches to that of Anna, his wife, a senior academic whose life is utterly derailed when her husband is returned to her with limited mobility and significant aphasia. We see Anna, then, trying to negotiate Robert’s slow rehabilitation, and, in the final third, their sessions at a community therapy group structured around alternate modes of communication: storytelling through movement.

It’s a strikingly structured book. The first part, in Antarctica, is as taut and compelling as an action thriller, albeit a beautifully atmospheric one that also skewers Robert’s rather stuffy, masculinist authoritarianism via the jibes of the younger men. The middle section, rotted squarely in domestic routines, recounts Anna’s horror and shock as she’s thrust into the role of carer for a husband who was never really at home until now. Her own career is abruptly side-lined, her grown children aren’t much help, her best friend (whose own husband died under similar circumstances in Antarctica) doesn’t really get it. So while Robert’s living out the consequences of literal physical trauma, Anna’s narrative too is one of shock and upheaval: the crushing business of this new medicalised existence, the shift in nature of her marriage. Robert can’t talk, but neither can Anna: how can it be possible for her to articulate the combination of resentment and helplessness and rage she feels in the face of her husband’s situation? In the final section, we see them both in the context of the recovery group, facilitated by Amira and helped by a trio of dance professionals – first we get Anna’s discomfort, her impatience with Robert’s hostility, and Robert’s own wrath at this reduction of his circumstances, this playacting he’s being made to do, and later, as the narrative moves away again from Anna, we witness Robert’s slow engagement with this new mode of speech as he explains to his audience of aphasic peers his old life on the ice, the storm that brought him here, to this room.

The storm opens and closes the book, then, and what we get in between is a story about the telling of a story that can’t be truly told because it’s about the inadequacy of language – not just in the case of aphasia, but also because, as Thomas and Luke note, it’s impossible to formulate in words the scale and force of the Antarctic landscape, and because it’s impossible for Anna to articulate, either to herself or to others, how she feels about her life’s new trajectory. If we understand ourselves and our lives through telling stories – as Amira suggests – how do we tell these stories when language fails us? In the book, in the plot, it’s done through dance, through gentle interpretive movements. In the book, too, it’s done – maybe paradoxically – through McGregor’s own manipulation of words. The collapse of Robert’s language is rendered through associative monologues, through a series of repetitions and distortions that, even as they deny denotative meaning, convey fluently the horror and scale of his loss of identity; with Anna, again, a cascade of repetitive phrases show us the forced rewriting of her story. They can’t articulate these shifts to themselves, but McGregor gives us a long hard look at the problem.

The confluence of Antarctic exploration and stroke rehabilitation is an unexpected one, but McGregor makes it seamless; the tension of the snowstorm is matched by Anna’s growing horror, by the tenderness of Robert’s growing receptivity to Amira’s sessions. It’s a frank – and thus difficult – look at the realities of caring, of the depleted public resources devoted to this work; it’s an examination of the whole idea of what constitutes care and work, of their overlaps and contradictions. It’s an evisceration of the system that expects women to carry out care work, to abandon, or to be excluded from, their other work, the paid work which they might (as does Anna) love; Robert’s work in the south sits uncomfortably with the domestic work of raising children; the paid care-workers aren’t paid enough and their care is rushed; do we care for work, is caring work? Academics, note the appearance of the REF: does work exclude care? But, all that said, it’s a funny book, too – the dialogue is witty, there’s joy and fun in Amira’s sessions – and it’s never dry: again, the storytelling is unremittingly compelling throughout.

Any Cop?: McGregor just gets better and better.

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