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Jon McGregor, Even the Dogs – TLS

05/02/2010

As in all great detective stories we begin at the end. With a body and a mystery. A man lies dead in a flat, a bunch of unseen characters mass outside his door. Laura, Heather, Mike, Danny, the cast keeps growing and it’s hard to tell who’s who or what they’re up to. The police arrive, but still no one notices the huddled group: “We’re used to that”, says the narrator, “We’ve been used to that for a long time”.

It is worth trying to understand the narrative strategy of Jon McGregor’s new novel because his first person plural narrator – the “we” telling this story – creates ambiguity of a kind rare in English fiction, still wedded to the order of realism. The reader is further thrown by the chaos of the opening scene where people and dogs tear up and down, scampering in and out of Robert, the dead man’s, kitchen window. Only slowly do we understand: the unidentified voice belongs to a down-and-out, one of the shambolic, sometimes violent gang of addicts that satellite round Robert’s grotty, urine-stained flat, the one fixed point in their transient lives. Beyond his walls they are largely overlooked, shuffling between the day centre, chemist, wasteground, police station, flyover and high rise squat. It is the world predicted by Beckett and Ballard, told here, though, not as prophecy, but reportage.

The narrator speaks a kind of national demotic, encompassing the sounds of the Scots, Irish, Liverpudlians (“Eh now then la”) and Londoners, all the “cunts [that] have got no one” and have run away to the Midlands. The bald descriptions – “We see Laura; We see Danny; We peer round the corner” – emphasise that this account of Robert’s life and death will be unadorned. It will not lie as Steve, the Falklands vet, believes “my country lied to me”; will not be euphemistic in the way of official jargon: “Let’s talk about your risk behaviour…shall we?” The observation “We see”, works also as instruction: as if to say, the script has already been written, leaving the ‘characters’ – abandoned, abused, schizophrenic, war-bashed – little room for manoeuvre. “What else can we do”, is the constant refrain.

The conceit that these are ghostly figures (“Get a good look at people’s shoes while they’re stepping around you”), lets the narrator and his cohorts accompany the body of their comrade, en masse but undetected, on its progress to the incinerator. Told in five parts – discovery, morgue, autopsy, cremation, inquest – the portrait that emerges, as one might expect of a tale from the gutter, is patchy and ironic: “Too many gaps, too many, fucking, known unknowns.” Yet it achieves an imaginative truth that the novel’s many probing officials (keyworker, community warden, sergeant, doctor, priest, ombudsman, coroner) for all their scrutinizing techniques and linguistic power, are incapable of reaching.

The narrator is certainly a spectral reporter, flitting across time and place. In one passage we fall back to the beginning: Robert and his young wife bathing together in happy exhaustion after the first day in their new home. But even as he dries her pregnant belly, the rising steam seeps into the walls and the rot sets in. In an imaginative effort comparable to Rachel Whiteread’s ‘House’ or Roger Hiorns’s ‘Seizure’ (an abandoned flat burgeoning with crystal stalactites), McGregor creates an eery vision of their council flat, moulding, yellowing, transforming “condensation into ice”.  A parallel montage shows us a child’s shoes in the hall, whisky under the sink, a fist mark on a wall, the wife stealing her daughter away in the night. It is a masterpiece in ellipsis, showing how narrative can glide through a life without the cluttering detail of realism.

Rachel Whiteread, ‘House’, 1993

Roger Hiorns, ‘Seizure’, 2008

This process of decay – in Robert’s flat, in his bloating corpse – is also answered in McGregor’s decomposing sentences. Most of the novel’s questions are rhetorical and carry, therefore, no question marks. For the same reason many sentences are fragments, the thought lost mid-stream, or abandoned because there is no need to complete it, no need for the ordering full stop. This broken-down language is a riposte to so many well-phrased platitudes about ‘our broken society’. Indeed, in one hallucinatory passage a soldier’s leg is blown off in Helmand as heroin is transported from Afghan fields to an English street where the amputated man now scuttles along, homeless and addicted.

Even the Dogs has some of the avenging rage of Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem, another recent exploration of outcast Britain, but it has an even greater sense of futility. The final sentence brandishes the threat of Shelleyan insurrection while, at the same time, reminding us that addicts get up each day and ‘go on’ only to score: “What else can we do, we fucking rise.”

This review appeared as ‘Fellow Travellers’ in the TLS, 5.2.2010.

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