Jon McGregor (2013) This Isn’t The Sort Of Thing That Happens To Someone Like You.
Jon McGregor winds his way across a mythical country, it might even be England, from Horncastle in the first story ‘That Colour’ to Marshchapel in ‘I’ll Buy You A Shovel’ in this collection of thirty short stories. ‘Sharp, dark and hugely entertaining’ says the blurb on the cover, a quote from Observer. ‘Haunting and brilliant’ Independent. I’m underwhelmed.
Take as an example the penultimate story in the collection, Grimbsy, ‘Song’.
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I don’t find that haunting or brilliant. I’m not hugely entertained. I don’t consider that a story. I do consider it a throwaway line, one that should not have made the cut into a selection of short stories.
Newark, ‘Thoughtful’ is a paragraph, with another sentence, another paragraph, ‘She was thoughtful like that.’
Nottingham, ‘Dig a Hole,’ follows a similar pattern. Read the story title and you know the story.
Other stories are more experimental. Holbeach, ‘The Cleaning’ is written in the style of a government report on a small group of extremist, about thirteen people including woman and children preparing for Armageddon. Parts of the report are redacted. Perhaps the whole report should have been redacted.
Some of the stories are worthy of the hype. I could see the merit in the award winning Sussworth ‘If It Keeps On Raining’ whilst not actually liking the story much. A man prepares for a different kind of Armageddon, this time by rain by building a treehouse and like Noah, building a boat. He doesn’t tell anybody at the yacht club – that doesn’t have any yachts – where he goes for a pint and is gently mocked, what he’s doing. He just tells them he’s using up some scrap wood. It’s a kind of nothing project, a hobby, using the language they can understand. The reader knows different.
Grantham, ‘Which Reminded Her Later,’ also has a religious aspect, but more directly. An American woman comes to stay in the vicarage, and the narrator, the vicar’s wife, Catherine, doesn’t quite know what to make or her or what to do with her. The American is not like the other waifs and strays. She takes so much for granted it’s infuriating. I liked the way this story unfurled.
Grantham, ‘Years Of This, Now’ is a sister story later in the collection. The narrator, whom we take to be Catherine, sits beside a hospital bed and tries to pray. Michael, the vicar, is hooked up to some machine that helps him breathe.
Messingham, ‘Wires’ is unsettling and brilliantly executed in the way it allows the reader to work out meaning between the gaps in the story. Sugar-beet flies from the back of a lorry, ‘at something like sixty-miles per hour’ and crashes through the windscreen. The narrator, Emily Wilkinson, on her first term at provincial Hull University, thinks all kinds of clichéd thoughts about what she should think with her life ending like that and ends with ‘basically wtf?’ But she’s in luck, the lorry was miles down the road, but she pulls into a layby and there’s a guy standing beside the car, he looks a bit weird like a breakdown man, he’s got a phone and said he phoned the police. Another, older man, stops and they move behind the crash barrier. You can never be too careful. You can never be too lucky. Wtf?
You can never to too unlucky. Wainfleet, ‘We Wave and Call’ begins ‘And sometimes it happens like this: a young man lying face down in the ocean, his limbs hanging loosely beneath him, a motorboat droning slowly across the bay…’. Loosely, this is a play on I’m not waving, I’m drowning set in an unspecified holiday resort in which the signs of war and the ceasefire that follows are still apparent. It’s told in the second person. ‘You open your eyes blinking against the light which pulses through the water.’ You don’t know if you’re going to make it. There’s that girl, Jo, friends, good friends you say. You’d like a bit more. You’ll laugh and tell her about the time you almost drowned.
The last story in the collection Marshchapel ‘I’ll Buy You A Shovel’ has two ex-cons back in their home town, sharing a stinky caravan, in the same way that they’d once shared a cell and not digging a ditch for some farmer that doesn’t want them to be there. A brilliant working of backstory and the expected and unexpected. It’s mired in the shit of life, but really shines.
But there’s too much of the former and not enough of the latter in this collection. I’d say 50/50. I’m being charitable. And I’m not known for my charity. I prefer clarity.