Jon McGregor published his first novel, If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things (2002), at the age of twenty-six. Set on an urban street in northern England, much of the book takes place over the course of a single day, at the end of which a fatal accident happens. Life—in the mundane manners of tea drinking, house painting, ball playing, bed making, lovemaking, telephoning, eavesdropping, looking and watching, not looking and not seeing—is spilled into public view, while mysterious joys and secretive pains remain out of sight, like precious organs tucked inside a body.
There is a familiar narrative formula in fiction: something dramatic, tragic, or otherwise life-changing happens and the novel explores the aftermath, showing how the characters’ lives are affected by the event. In If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, McGregor changes this formula, placing that event in the last few pages. This leaves little space for its aftermath to be explored in a conventional way, and with good reason: even though we often use the word “unimaginable” to describe the pain and suffering that might follow a tragedy, they are not necessarily that difficult to picture.
In fiction as well as in life, oftentimes we attempt to reach backward from the aftermath of an event to the time before it, searching for clues and patterns. These attempts are not entirely trustworthy: they highlight some things, omit others, and risk rewriting the past. McGregor counters such a revisiting gesture, devoting almost the entire novel to describing in minute detail the ordinary actions of each of the residents of the street—including a World War II veteran and his wife, a man who lost his wife to a fire and is bringing up their daughter by himself, a group of club-goers whose reveling ends after daybreak, a university student and her roommates, immigrant families with three generations living under the same roof, children playing cricket and a little boy on a tricycle, a lone young man who collects junk and attempts to make art out of it—as they move through the day, just as they would any other day, in and out of one another’s sight. These ordinary moments, rendered in poetic prose, are nothing but extraordinary. Tightly coiled, McGregor’s sentences often seem to be on the cusp of springing into a paragraph, a chapter—and yet each retains an untrespassing efficiency:
The buses in the depot, waiting for a new day, they are quiet, their metalwork easing and shrinking into place, settling and cooling after eighteen hours of heat and noise, eighteen hours of criss-crossing the city like wool on a loom….
The night-fishers strung out along the canal, feeling the sing of their lines in the water, although they are within yards of each other they are saying nothing, watching luminous floats hang in the night like bottled fireflies…
To attune to the sensitivity of McGregor’s words—each sentence, each clause, each punctuation mark (or lack thereof)—a reader has to slow down to a near stillness, almost as if holding one’s breath in and one’s finger out to be touched by a hummingbird’s beak. At one point the veteran and his wife board a bus while a young girl watches them, unobserved:
And if either of them were to look over their shoulder now they would see the young girl standing on the corner, watching the bus grind its way up the long hill out of town, lifting an imaginary hat from her head and trying to wink. But neither of them are watching, they’re too busy settling themselves in their seats, she straightening her dress, he removing his hat and smoothing his thick white hair, both of them shuffling into a comfortable position.
And behind them, on the corner of her street, the young girl tries again, two winks coming out at once, and she frowns and holds one eye open with a finger and a thumb while she lifts an imaginary hat from her head.
In this passage, framed by the two liftings of an imaginary hat, no more than ten seconds pass; the entire sequence of the girl’s actions is seen by no one. One of her brothers, at the end of the novel, will be hit by a car—witnessed by many people in the street—but that event haunts me less than this one. Moments like this, rescued by McGregor’s attention, require reciprocating attention from the reader. To read slowly is to read with imagination and memory. Are we not all living with the recollection of being a child, with the desire to be seen in our kindest and most expressive moments, and yet fated not to be seen?
In the aftermath of the accident, perhaps the girl herself will forget this earlier moment on the street corner, a small loss overshadowed by a monstrous one. What a comfort that McGregor has not let incidents such as this one, which do not have a position in the chain of cause and effect, slip into oblivion.
My only quibble with the novel is that the accident—though placed at the end—is alluded to periodically throughout, giving the narrative a slight flavor of artificial urgency: we are reminded, with each allusion, that we are reading about a time when the world is still innocent of one senseless tragedy. But life itself, at any given moment, is always innocent of some senseless tragedies, dooms small and large.
Dooms are never far off in McGregor’s novels. Even the Dogs (2010) opens with a man found dead in an unheated flat in an unnamed industrial English city; within the first few sentences of Reservoir 13 (2017), it is revealed that a thirteen-year-old girl has gone missing from an English village where she and her parents have been on a winter holiday. Both of these books could be described as explorations of the aftermath of an event of the kind that one reads about in the newspaper—local rather than national—before moving on to the next column: a gallery opened in town, three hundred cassette tapes of oral history recordings were discovered in the basement of the municipal historical society, a cyclist was injured by a car at an intersection and died in the hospital.
The word “aftermath” derives from aftermowth, and originally referred to a second crop of grass that grows after the first has been mown or harvested. If there is aftermath, there should be beforemath, too. But what does beforemath mean? A time like the one explored in McGregor’s first novel, perhaps, when what is growing cannot be called first growth or old growth yet, because no mowing has taken place to mark it. But how dependent is a narrative on that potentially artificial or arbitrary moment of mowing?
In each of the thirteen chapters of Reservoir 13, another year passes since the disappearance of the teenage girl, with seasons unfolding reliably, nature writing a cyclic narrative on the meadow, by the river, and in the woods. The villagers hold the mystery of her disappearance in their collective consciousness, but it’s not at the center of their lives. Children grow up; people fall in and out of love, commit petty crimes and cruelties against one another, and mask their affection and kindness to one another with the nonchalance of the accidental. A woman cares for an elderly neighbor’s dog while trying to cause as little pain or humiliation as possible:
[Cathy] knocked on Mr. Wilson’s door and asked whether Nelson needed a walk. He said that would be a great help, and asked whether she’d have a cup of tea first. A routine of theirs, this, to make the arrangement seem temporary, when in fact Cathy had been walking Nelson most days for years.
A butcher’s shop is foreclosed on, a yoga center opens, a potter’s creations—unappreciated and unsold—are shattered on the ground during an outburst of despair. New lambs are born, some with more difficulty than others. The thirteen years after the girl’s disappearance are not that different from the thirteen years before it. The girl is never found; the mystery remains unresolved.
Reservoir 13 begins with a pair of lines from Wallace Stevens’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”:
The river is moving.
The blackbird must be flying.
McGregor’s novel, circular and diffused like Stevens’s poem, is unusual in showing that aftermath is not necessarily very different from beforemath: they are both times people live through, separated by an arbitrary moment. It’s a novel about the many destinies of multiple characters, none of them elevated with endowed purpose or meaning, but each described attentively. Its tapestrying effect brings to mind Middlemarch, and also the fiction of contemporary writers such as Elizabeth McCracken and Tom Drury.
Lean Fall Stand has a more linear structure than McGregor’s earlier novels. It consists of three parts, each named for a verb, the part of speech that is most time-conscious. At the start of “Lean,” a three-man surveying team is separated by a sudden, blinding storm while out taking photographs of some cliffs near Lopez Sound, not far from their isolated research station in Antarctica. But there is a circular element to the narration as the chapters in this section alternate among the three characters: Thomas and Luke, both young researchers on their first Antarctic expedition, and Doc, a veteran with thirty years’ experience as a technical assistant or guide.
That the men are thousands of miles away from home and several hours from the main base, where help would come from, does not change the fact that people and what they represent—a past made into memory, and a future when this day’s memory will be shared as a story of adventure—are the natural reference points of the characters’ thoughts. Solitude is perhaps more of a physical state; our minds are rarely void of people. As Thomas tries to get his bearings, unable to see anything through the wind and snow, he lies flat on the ice and listens to the sound of the storm:
He had heard this described as like being inside a jet engine. As though people knew what being inside a jet engine was like. People said these things, but the words didn’t always fit.
Luke, alone with the snowmobile and also unable to see anything, tries unsuccessfully to make radio contact with Thomas and Doc. He ponders:
People were going to ask him a lot of questions about Antarctica, when he got home, and one thing he wouldn’t be able to tell them was that a lot of time it was pure boring. Beautiful, yes. Awe-inspiring and majestic or humbling or whatever else you wanted to call it, but once you were done looking, the actual experience of being here day after day was kind of long.
We are, in these chapters, close to the researchers’ consciousnesses, which creates a false hope: surely the novel will let us see all of them return home safely and share this adventure with their families and friends.
Doc, meanwhile, is having a stroke without knowing it. After a near fall from an ice cliff, he has trouble moving, is confused, and even in his thoughts his language starts to break down, losing grammar, vocabulary, continuity:
All slow and now the engine loud. All slow and now press face jacket crease squash face, fall, fall, snow. Weight. White. White. Heavy. White. Was up, was down. Heavy. White. Muffle. Muffle. Slow, slow. Tink. Skidoo hit rock, turned over. Luke. Feeling gone right side face all down body. Falling. Weight. Silence. White. Mouth full. Snow pack tight. Wait. Up. Down. Floating. Low thing. Snow sling. Heart beat slow snow low light gone. Footsteps little far. Footsteps big near. Shout. Pull. Fight. Shout. Pull over, turn over. Breath. Big breath. Mouth open, cold air. Lungs burst. Breath, breath, breath. Stand. Lean. Fall.
For a few pages we are trapped in this language. What’s going on? We don’t understand, just as Doc does not. Perhaps he is dying, perhaps we are listening to the ravings of a man at death’s door. When will clarity return to anchor us?
Yet even in our wish for lucidity we are also reeling from a chapter in which the clear and logical language used by Thomas as he floats away on a piece of ice is a drastic contrast to the whirlpool of words in Doc’s thoughts. When Thomas refers to the training he received before the trip, we sense the succinctness of the bullet points: “The phrase floe-hop came to mind…. If he could find an adjacent floe, and move across to it, he could keep moving that way to the land.” Further and further adrift, he still finds the precise words to describe his surroundings, referring to a nearby leopard seal: “Circling would be too strong a word. It was maintaining a presence.” Thomas’s language sounds so reasonable that we are nearly convinced he could swim in the icy ocean to shore and trek the glacier to safety.
In interviews, McGregor has said that he wanted to write about a trip to Antarctica in 2004 but didn’t figure out how until now. To recreate the world of an Antarctic expedition—the specificity of equipment, protocols, and procedures; the varieties of landscape, weather, flora, and fauna; the natural history of the continent and the human history of exploration and exploitation; all the different ways a day could go wrong; and the aloneness and loneliness a person might feel when such a life, so near nature, is also the most artificial and tedious—might require a novel with the length and breadth of Moby-Dick. McGregor opted out of writing that book.
In Antarctica, Doc may have been representing humankind facing extraordinary nature. But in the second part of McGregor’s novel, “Fall,” the narrative swiftly shifts to England, where Doc, known to his family and friends as Robert, has returned to recover from his stroke. Here the novel becomes the story of Robert and Anna, his wife—a scientist who has centered her entire marriage to Robert around his absences and brought up their two children mostly on her own. They are waging a different war against nature, this time within Robert’s brain: against aphasia, the loss of a person’s ability to understand language or express oneself in speech.
Coming back from a near death can be a humiliating process. Robert, the experienced navigator of treacherous landscapes, has to relearn how to belt his trousers and put food into his mouth. He also has to regain basic language skills. In extended passages of dialogue, McGregor demonstrates with painstaking attention how difficult it is for Robert to communicate with the rest of the world, as when a speech therapist shows him a picture of a ship:
“Is this a shoe? A shoe, Robert?”
“Ssh. Yes. Sshh.”
“This is something that floats on the water, Robert. Does a shoe float?”
“Is this a ship?”
“Ship. Good. Ssh—ship.” She made more notes. She turned to Anna, suddenly, and smiled. She held up a picture of an aeroplane.
“You can say this already?”
“Pay-lane. Red. Red pay-lane.”
There is an abysmal gap between those who take language for granted and those who have lost that ability. When Anna first learns about Robert’s stroke, she turns to her close friend Bridget, whose husband—a colleague of Robert’s—died in an earlier accident in Antarctica. Grief for the dead is nonnegotiable, but it also offers a graspable reality, a certainty, that is not available to Anna. Anna confesses to Bridget, “I don’t know if I want him to come home.”
This is not selfishness or lack of love. Any funeral director or grief counselor may use such language with the bereaved: I want you to remember him as when he was alive, not how he died. Such words would be of little use to Anna. The nearly speechless and immobile Robert is still filled with life. He dreams of going on the next season’s expedition, yet he cannot go through a day without a full-time caretaker.
McGregor’s depiction of speechlessness, both metaphorical and physical, makes the novel much more interesting than if he had provided a page-turner about a botched expedition in Antarctica. Though most of us might not have firsthand experience of that continent, we are familiar with its often majestic stock images: the ocean, the sky, the ubiquitous ice, penguins, humans with special equipment that grants them access to the landscape. Such a place might prompt a cliché—at a loss for words—as might tragedies of all kinds (and perhaps blisses of all kinds).
But anyone tempted to speak that phrase carelessly, as though it could convey something substantial, would perhaps reconsider after reading Lean Fall Stand. What does it mean for someone to be truly at a loss for words? During the immediate period after Robert’s return to England, his most consistent answer to any query is a combination of “yes,” “of course,” “obviously,” and “Christ”:
He pulled at the collar of his shirt. Anna asked if it was uncomfortable.
“Yes! Yes! Obviously, Christ!”
“Okay. I was only asking.”
“Of course, of course, yes, yes.”…
“Nice pants, Dad.”
“Yes, obviously, obviously.”
Nothing is obvious, nothing can be taken for granted, and a brain that has many reasons to scream “no” to life can only manage a “yes.” This especially complicates matters when the research institute has to investigate and decide if it was Robert’s error that contributed to the death of his colleague:
“And the medical team said they found you in this area, towards Priestley Head, within sight of the skiway?”
“A tent was located here, beyond Priestley Head, along with a damaged skidoo.”
“Right. And Luke was found a few hundred yards beyond Priestley Head, disorientated but otherwise well.”
“Can you see, Doc? Over here?”
“It’s a long way from the field hut. It’s a long way short of where Thomas was eventually recovered, at the far end of Lopez Sound.”
“Yes, yes. Ha! Yes.”
“I think, Doc, we’re interested to know what they were doing over there. What Thomas was doing on the ice in the first place, and why they were travelling without satphones.”
“Had there been any planning regarding the access onto the sea-ice? Any risk assessment?”
Robert widened his eyes suddenly and made a puffing sound. He turned his hand in the air. The gesture could have meant: I don’t know. Or: What can I tell you? Or even: These reckless young people! It was impossible to know.
McGregor’s carefully composed dialogue, filled with the repetition of so few words, had an eerie effect on me: for several days my own inner dialogue was often composed of the same words, as though I, too, was discovering how they could express drastically different emotions yet remain unreadable to the world. I wanted to put the right words into Robert’s mouth, to speak for him, to expedite his thinking process, and I was conscious that in those moments I was in the same predicament as Anna.
“He always had to reach for the words,” McGregor writes, describing how Robert feels. “As though they’d been put on a high shelf in the stores.” (The word he searches for at that moment is “cold.”) The last part of the novel, “Stand,” follows Robert and Anna into a larger setting: they join a support group for people suffering from aphasia. Robert and the other patients, all reaching for words on various high shelves, clash with one another, skirt around one another, create encounters both tragic and comic. Readers impatient with the slowness of the group’s progress won’t be alone: Anna and other caretakers in the room feel the same. By not creating a shortcut either for the characters or for readers, McGregor makes us experience their confusion, frustration, and shifting moods between despair and hope.
Caretaking—in the broad sense of offering a helping hand to a friend, a neighbor, a family member, or even a stranger—is a recurrent theme in McGregor’s writing. Anna, as the sole caretaker for Robert (and seeing her own career eroded and halted), ponders the naming of her role when she joins Robert for the group meeting: “Supporters. This was a new one to Anna. It was usually carers, or occasionally partners. Supporter was more neutral, perhaps.” And perhaps it’s a more realistic definition for what one human being can do for another.
In the end it is the other aphasia patients, with the help of the supporters, who begin to gain access to Robert’s mind. Together they put on a theatrical production—limited by their physical and linguistic capacities—recounting how Robert’s last day in Antarctica went wrong. It is a different kind of storytelling, imagined from the center of the storm, with Robert and the other patients all trying to achieve the near impossible in the aftermath of near-fatal events. Inside their damaged brains and hampered bodies they can sense, as a memory so vividly relived, their healthy and eloquent selves. The beauty of their minds, like that of the girl waving at the bus at a street corner without being seen, is preserved.