June 25, 2010
Jon McGregor: Even the Dogs
A confession first: I have previously had a prejudice against Jon McGregor on the basis that his titles (If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, So Many Ways to Begin) were so precious and pompous that I would never be able to see whatever good was in the books (if any). The high praise which Even the Dogs attracted among many sympathetic readers made me see past my prejudice … only to find that it wasn’t so far off after all.
I was interested to read in dovegreyreader’s interview with McGregor that he conceived the book, and wrote the first chapter, while stuck on his previous novel, then put it away. I thought the first chapter was terrific, grim but bright-eyed and full of life (albeit not the sort of life many of us would want to experience). It opens with the death of Robert, a drug addict.
We all crowd into the room and look at the body. The swollen and softening skin, the sunken gaze, the oily pool of fluids spreading across the floor. The twitch and crawl of newly hatched life, feeding.
(The ‘we’ is a choral narrative voice, as in The Virgin Suicides or Then We Came to the End, seemingly comprising fellow drug users who have gone the same way as Robert.) I speculate that the force of this opening chapter came from the fact that McGregor was writing it ‘casually’, not as his main project, and that the book suffered when he turned his full attention to it to write the rest of it; it became important.
Even the Dogs is well written, and mostly free of effortful ‘fine writing’, and there are some nice cadences and repetitions (“what else can we do”) in the voice of the invisible crowd which narrates the book. And the subject matter is dramatic and (again) ‘important’. But the characters are all – or almost all – junkies or alcoholics or both, and people addicted to drugs are not very interesting, being pretty one-note in their motivations and repetitive in their actions. (“The man hours that go into living like this. Takes some dedication, takes some fucking what, commitment.”) I didn’t find the characters easy to tell apart either, other than the deceased Robert and his daughter Laura, so the voices, already an impressionistic blur, merged almost indistinguishably.
There were certainly lovely moments, like the the touching page or so where Robert fantasises about the sort of life most of us take for granted, and the time-lapse description of Robert and Yvonne’s parenting of Laura, which doubles as a record of innocent life being corrupted.
Crayon scribbles appear, low on the wallpaper by the heaps of shoes and boxes of toys. Dated felt-tip stripes creep up the wall by the doorframe, tracking their daughter’s growth a thumb’s width at a time. Tiny shoes nudge in alongside the adult-sized ones, and bigger shoes take their place. Tea stains the colour of old photographs splash across the wall, lingering long after the broken cups are cleared away. A dent the size of a fist or forehead is hidden by a framed school portrait. The damp patches spread further, and the paper sags away from the wall, and the ceiling stains a darkening nicotine yellow. The door is kicked from its hinges, and rehung. More framed pictures are put up on the wall.
There is a lovely observation about the rare pleasure for some of these social ‘untouchables’ of having direct human contact. (“Same with the nurses, changing your dressings or taking your blood pressure or listening to the crackling in your lungs, they got to touch you with their clean soft hands and no one says nothing about it but it all helps oh Christ but it helps.”) I also thought the last chapter good, with the state’s attempts, having failed to stop Robert’s descent into chaos during his life, to impose order at least on his death through post-mortem and inquest proceedings. There is even the odd decent joke.
Straight up, I don’t think I’d even have mental-health problems in the first place if the voices were just a bit nicer to me, you know what I’m saying?
All in all though, I thought the book too frequently seemed to be a series of exercises in style – a chapter with unfinished paragraphs, ten pages of unbroken text – in which McGregor was at pains to display his research and his virtuosity. Recurring ideas (“And then getting up and doing it all over again. We get up, and we do it all over again”) owe their power to a debt to Beckett or Kelman. Even the Dogs seemed to be one of those books which, claiming importance because of a weighty subject matter, doesn’t actually match up to that in the reading; it was mostly dull. I think it’s possible that if it hadn’t been published in a lovely ‘bendyback’ format – so easy to read handsfree! – I might not have finished it at all.