If nobody speaks of remarkable things

I think this is the most beautiful opening to a novel I have ever read, and is a delight to return to. It’s from Jon McGregor’s first novel If nobody speaks of remarkable things I read it, in three parts, in the moment of silence between one day and the next. If you enjoy listening, I recommend you buy all three of McGregor’s books, which are like presents you’ll want to open again and again.

The power of the unsaid – Nottingham Articles – LeftLion.co.uk

Jon McGregor will be reading at the Broadway cinema on Tuesday 9th March 2010

Jon McGregor’s novels have a habit of getting under the skin, as though the hands absorb the words on the page by osmosis. The first three books, despite their diverse subject matter, had a similarly powerful effect on me, imbuing me with an understanding of the resonance of the unspoken.

McGregor has created a host of rich and complex characters: a young woman narrates part of the story in If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things; David curates a story as a hangover of his profession in So Many Ways to Begin; Robert is the central figure in Even the Dogs, who in life and death is surrounded by others who are united in their subservience to their addictions – Danny, Laura, Mike, Heather, Steve, Ben… These characters all have a remarkable and individual way of concealing something of themselves, of not-telling, of failing to find the right words or of being failed by words.

 Jon’s debut won the Betty Trask Award

In If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things a young woman has a secret, one that can’t remain concealed for long, but who can she tell, and how? She needs help, but doesn’t know who to turn to, or how to talk about what is happening to her.

‘I told him… that I hadn’t been able to tell anyone for a long time and I wasn’t sure why it had been so difficult. And that when I had told my mum she’d been polite and indifferent and I didn’t know what she really felt. I told him that I thought she’d be shocked or cross or upset, but that when she was none of these things I was actually unsurprised… I said all of this very quietly, and I was amazed to hear the words coming out at all, like butterflies wriggling through net curtains.’

The young woman meets the twin brother of a young man that lived on the same street as her when she was a student, the young man who tried to prevent a tragic accident on the street on the last day of summer, as they were packing up to go home. The new acquaintance tells the young woman things that she did not know about his brother, and her understanding and memory of that time begin to unravel as she wonders how we can miss such remarkable things. The story of the accident, and of the young man, is told by an omniscient narrator, who sees the tragedy from different residents’ perspectives and offers a glimpse of lives bound together by place and events.

‘He thinks about her, at this moment, in her house, a few thin walls away, packing her life into boxes and bags and he wonders what memories she is rediscovering, what thoughts are catching in her mouth like the dust blown from unused textbooks. He wonders if she has buried any traces of herself under her floorboards. He wonders what those traces would be if she had. And he wonders again why he thinks about her so much when he knows so little to think about.’

 Like his debut, So Many Ways to Begin was longlisted for the Man Booker prize

In So Many Ways to Begin David is a museum curator, fascinated by the provenance of objects. In his early twenties, he discovers that the woman he assumes is his mother did not give birth to him, which prompts a desire to learn his ‘true’ beginnings. David seems convinced that this fact somehow changes his life, and he searches as though for something lost. He and his wife, Eleanor, are locked in a kind of profound melancholy, and both are reticent to confide in each other the depth of their hurt.

‘…he had no answer when Malcolm asked him what was on his mind so much these days, and he could only smile and pretend to look embarrassed when Anna said odds on it’s a woman and they all laughed. It was easier to let them think like that. He wouldn’t have known where to begin if he’d wanted to tell them what it really was.’

‘This isn’t me though David, she said to him once, despairingly. This isn’t what I’m like. She waved a hand around the bedroom, at the heaped bedclothes, the empty mugs, the drawn curtains… But mostly she denied there was even a problem. It’s nothing, she’d say, when he asked. I’m okay, really, I’m fine. I just need some rest. Or she’d say it’s not you. There’s nothing you can do. I just want to be left alone a while.’

‘These were things that shouldn’t have been discussed, no matter how often someone said, are you sure? Or, is everything really okay? Or, you shouldn’t keep things bottled up you know. But he sat with Anna on the bus and told her about it.’

David ‘curates’ his life story, creating a collection of significant objects that form part of a narrative. The idea of selection and editing inherent in the practice of curation undermines the notion that there could be a single true story for each person. It’s clear that David builds a narrative that is simply one way of telling his story, which suggests not only that there are so many ways to begin, but also that there are so many ways to continue: it also undermines David’s obsession with authenticity, because the experience signified by the object is fluid and subject to interpretation.

‘The real story, he knew, was more complicated than anything he could gather together in a pair of photo albums and a scrapbook and drive across the country to lay out on a table somewhere. The whole story would take a lifetime to tell. But what he had would be a start, he thought, a way to begin. What he had would be enough to at least say, here, these are a few of the things which have happened to me, while you weren’t there.’

 Will this be the novel which wins McGregor the Booker?

In Even the Dogs Robert is a squatter in the flat where he started a family. He loses his wife and daughter after losing his job, and they are slowly replaced by people seeking shelter now and again, people who become a new kind of family (one who take advantage of him perhaps as well) and who eventually remove Robert’s reasons for leaving the flat at all by running errands for him. At first, Robert hopes that his family will return, but as time passes, Robert becomes less able to help himself.

‘He woke up and saw her looking at him. It was confusing. Who was it… And then he realised. It gave him something like a pain in the chest, a pain which near enough swelled and sucked in air as he looked at her and realised just what he’d missed and just how much he’d failed, at this precise fucking moment, to be what she wanted him to be. He had no idea what to say.’

‘Robert didn’t say much about what had happened… He didn’t say much at all.’

‘All these questions we want to ask. But we can’t and. We say nothing.’

Robert’s friends demonstrate a wilful reluctance to speak when expected to. In therapy sessions, they are expected to talk honestly and openly about their lives in order to obtain the chemicals that they desire to veil their thoughts and feelings. There’s a sense of the futility of forced words in tackling an addiction.

‘Speaking up once was enough to get a tick on the court order. Sat there, waiting for it to finish while the woman went on about remembering they always had choices, and not getting trapped in the past. Ben remembered that he had a choice to keep his mouth shut and wait for the end of the hour or whatever. He was good at waiting.’

In every untold story and in each buried emotion, I find myself: the reader. I wonder what I would do, how I would feel; I recall all those times that I have been unable or unwilling to speak; I remember speaking and still not being understood; I empathise with the power of a set of circumstances, and the way a situation can impair my ability to communicate. I imagine those characters, their internal speech – the rehearsals, the word-searching, the frustration – and I find that I can empathise, and those characters become more real: I have made them more real.

I think that a memorable book always leaves room for the reader: it needs to matter, to mean something to the reader, or how else would it earn its place among the sprawling shelves of the brain’s storage system? McGregor exquisitely captures the ultimate impotence of words as expressions of our emotions: some things can only be felt, and not related. Even when we can articulate our thoughts and feelings, we all reserve the right to keep something of ourselves to ourself.

Jon Mcgregor is in conversation with Ross Bradshaw on the 9th March 2010, 6.30pm.

Broadway Cinema, Broad Street.
Tickets from the Broadway Box Office, 0115 952 6611

If you haven’t read any Jon McGregor, now’s the time to start…

Just what is going on?

Perhaps it’s the two cups of coffee I consumed today, or maybe there’s
another reason, but my head feels full, and in the way that some
bloggers come to rely on publishing thoughts as a method of purging or
cleansing themselves, here I go…

We’re just wrapping up a phase of business planning, budgeting and
implemention of some new programmes of work, and in a few weeks time, we’ll actually be working with writers again – glory be. I also get to kick off my grand sounding careers coaching so that I learn to (in my
coach’s words) ‘demonstrate my excellence’. If that’s a success, it’ll
be just short of a miracle.

Since that ManBooker fun last autumn, I’ve been committing to all
sorts of challenges. I’ve already failed the 100 day challenge
(because I’m a compulsive spender), and am making little progress on
the Man Booker winners challenge (though am confident I’ll do it, even
if I leave Possession until last), but seem to be on track with my
green aspirations (sitting here with my dressing gown on over my clothes).

I’ve a few small writing projects on the go. I’m trying to write an
article about my motivation to read the ManBooker longlist last year,
which will hopefully be featured on LeftLion’s website. I’ve been corresponding with James, the books editor for LL, about the feat, and he has referred to me in his own blog as a literature sadist! I often confuse sadism and masochism (despite the sexual economies module I took at university, which Alex likes to bring up to embarrass me), but I sincerely hope I haven’t inadvertently caused anyone else any pain
through my compulsive reading! Still, the question about whether this
kind of intense reading is a pleasure or a pain is a very relevant
I’ve also been revisiting the first two Jon McGregor books – If Nobody
Speaks of Remarkable Things
and So Many Ways to Begin – as I prepare to receive my review copy of his third novel, Even the Dogs. I’m planning on writing an article about the three books, again for LeftLion, and elsewhere if it’s good enough, which offers a creative view of the intellectual and literary space created by the three books and that might be more stimulating than an interview with the author, in which he’s asked whether he writes with a pen, pencil, quill or keyboard (Jon discusses his feelings about this sort of interview on
his website, which is just delightful). The article is also an unashamed great big sell, because if you haven’t read Jon’s novels, you really should. He’s a shining star on a moonless night. Even the Dogs is available from Monday 1st February 2010. Both of Jon’s previous books have been longlisted for the Booker prize, so get your mitts on this one early.

If that isn’t enough, I’m ploughing through my first Open University
course, Bon départ, and blogging about my experience of being an OU
newbie for Platform. Thankfully, my lovely friend from Lyon is
humouring me by providing a bit of French conversation (well, okay,
I’m sort of just listening and looking confused at the moment). I’ve
fallen a little behind with my progress through the course material,
so have some intense weeks ahead of my next assessment in March.

Finally, to make sure my body can take the strain of this engorged
brain I’m developing (and yes, because age has finally caught up with
me) I’m following an exercise regime on EA active on the Wii.
Shockingly, I’m quite enjoying doing something physical, but perhaps
that’s obvious given the amount of time I normally spend sitting
around reading or staring at a computer screen! I have now officially
transfered from being a skinny girl constantly told ‘it won’t last’ by
other women, to being a woman who will inevitably cluck at young waifs and tell them to ‘enjoy it while they can’ – the it being
extraordinarily prolific cake consumption habits as I once enjoyed.

I think that’s all. To enjoy the link-love, check out this post on my blog 🙂