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.


  1. McGregor strikes me – perhaps unfairly – as a diligent product of a creative writing course. His writing is a series of effects stacked up, perfectly functional and technically sound, that are ultimately best viewed in isolation and that drag on and on in a wearyingly self-conscious mode of seriousness that leaves you panting for less. It’s as though he’s a guy that realises that he has a facility for language but has nothing to say, but is saying it anyway. I realise this sounds harsh but whenever I’ve tried to read him I’ve had a sub-textual nudge in the ribs that says: ‘THIS IS IMPORTANT. THIS IS SERIOUS. CHECK THIS SCENE OUT. CHECK THAT SCENE OUT. THIS IS GUARANTEED TO DUPE 75% OF ALL CRITICS.’ But not John Self, alas.

    1. I think that’s really interesting, given that he didn’t do any creative writing in university/after–I think his degree was journalism or communications (a very different kind of writing, and a *very* different milieu to most creative writing programs).

      Given no ‘training’ in creative writing via the academy, I wonder where this feeling comes from?

  2. Interesting… I have had quite a few bloggers recommend this one to me, but I have yet to take the plunge. It sounds a bit heavy, to be honest. Have you read Trainspotting? And, if so, how does McGregor’s novel stack up against it?

  3. I haven’t read Transpotting, Kim, but I didn’t find Even the Dogs to be ‘heavy’ or hard going – or if I did, it was because I thought it was boring, not gruelling.

    (I am reminded of Yann Martel, currently doing the promotional rounds for Beatrice and Virgil and insisting that critics dislike the book because it tackles the Holocaust in a new and daring way – no, they dislike it tackles the Holocaust badly, and because it’s a stillborn idea which he nonetheless forced out.)

    Lee, harsh but succinct!

  4. I tried listening to If No One Speaks… on audiobook and couldn’t follow it.

    So I thought that if I read it (visually), perhaps it would be more engaging. I was wrong.

    Thanks so much for steering me away from this; I might have been tempted to read it just to show myself that I’d been wrong about If No One Speaks…

  5. I’d like to enter a dissenting comment here. A week after I finished Even The Dogs I would have acknowledged all of JS’s critical comments — indeed, some months later, they all are justifiable.

    Having said that, however, the book is one that has very much grown in memory. The devices that McGregor uses become less intrusive; his characters (and unlike John I had no problem in finding them as individuals) have grown in definition. And my overall impression of the book (which I quite liked initially) has grown.

    It is a bit of non sequitur to criticize the author for writing an “important” book about “boring” drug addicts. Surely, it has to be one or the other, if a reader approaches it with an open mind. My own view is that McGregor makes absolutely no pretence to important — I can understand why some readers would find his characters to be not just unattractive, but unworthy, but I would hasten to add that I did not find that to be the case.

    I can only conclude that I probably came to this book with a much different frame of mind, since I have not read any of his previous work. Certainly for me it worked — and has become even better with time.

  6. I’m glad to have your dissenting opinion, Kevin. I’ll allow that in a different mood, or in a different month, I might have come down on the positive side for McGregor.

    Yes, it is a non sequitur to accuse an ‘important’ book of being boring – but I am guessing at McGregor’s motivation, so it’s pure speculation anyway. I must admit that Lee’s rather cruel comment that McGregor is a man with a great facility for language but nothing to say, strikes a chord with me too. (Then again, some have said the same of Martin Amis, and it’s never stopped me from liking him.)

    I don’t agree though that a book has to be either important or boring. To say that important equals interesting is also a non sequitur, I think. Quantum theory may be important but it is not, to me, very interesting. And there is a grand history of books which borrow an important subject matter and seem to rely on that in place of literary qualities. (I’d include Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five in that list, though I’m a fan of Vonnegut generally.) Just as office managers encourage workers to distinguish between tasks that are important and tasks that are urgent, and not to confuse the two, similarly I as a reader try to not to confuse an important subject matter with literary importance.

    1. On the issue of ‘importance’ I can only say that bad writers seem to lean on it. Portentously. I’m not that keen on putting aside my need for good writing for a good cause when it comes to fiction. I don’t mean that in any other way than: perhaps McGregor should be making documentaries?

  7. There’s an interesting quote from Ishiguro that is somewhat on this topic. It is in tomorrow’s New York Times Magazine article on David Mitchell (the magazine, speaks of Jacob de Zoet but doesn’t say whether it is good or bad, though it has a lot of great things to say about Cloud Atlas):

    “Of many new writers one gets excited about,” Ishiguro told me from his home in London, “one says: ‘Well, this writing is important because this book gives a voice to an ethnic minority experience. This writing is important because it tackles the issue of modernity well or captures a historical period.’ We often get into the reflex of ‘this is important because,’ relegating literary worth to some secondary function. But when reading David for the first time, I was exhilarated—the exhilaration of being swept along into another, different world. It’s sheer joy.”

    I haven’t read Even the Dogs, so I throw this out there just for the interesting conversation going on.

  8. What I meant to imply was that I got no sense that McGregor was trying to say that this story is “important”, in the sense that Lee implies (and obviously I disagree with his assessment). Rather, I think the author was trying to tell the stories of a powerless group of characters — and I can certainly understand why those who, for whatever reason, can’t engage with those characters would find the book to be a disappointment. I guess my concern is that I don’t like to see an author denounced for a) something that I don’t think he was trying to do at all and b) producing a work that for some people at least is very successful. It is one thing to find the book wanting (in the ways that I think your review does) ; quite another to expand that into a denunciation of the author’s intent. I generally agree with Lee but to say “this is guaranteed to dupe 75% of all critics” is a grossly unfair assessment of both the book and its author.

    I also appreciate your reference to Martel, because I do think he is guilty of proclaiming his book to be “important” (at least in his interviews) when to my mind it clearly is not. While I think Martel is exploiting the Holocaust in a completely inappropriate matter to make his book “important” — and as you note fails completely — I see no sense that McGregor is trying to do the same thing. Rather, I think he is making an honest effort to capture the stories of a not-very-attractive, underprivileged group of people and I think he succeeds. My comparisons would be Colum McCann’s Let The Great World Spin and The Ask in contemporary terms; perhaps Last Exit to Brooklyn, Alan Silitoe’s early novels and even aspects of Money in historical terms.

    1. Just reading through the posts again, and thinking about your reference to “Money”. There is certainly a difference between rich and poor when it comes to drug addiction in terms of suffering but the drive is the same. The rich are no less desperate when you take away the monetary issue. Edward St Aubyn’s “Bad News” (centre of the “Some Hope” trilogy) portrays this well.

  9. I wonder if perhaps this is a book everyone may approach in a different frame of mind John? You have perhaps come to it in a very literal way with a view to offering a critical and objective appraisal of its literary merits and I really admire that in your reviews, especially when I have been wallowing up to my knees in a book’s emotion and may have bypassed or accepted what others see as flaws as a result.
    Except everything you see as a flaw or contrived I found to be wholly appropriate within the context of the book and the minds that were being portrayed.
    I do know that for those who have first hand experience of this way of life or may have worked closely with it, Jon McGregor has pinned it down and dissected it with precision because they told me so in the flurry of e mails I have had since writing about the book, from people who’ve read it and had drug addicts within the family. They have found it stark and painful to read but also incredibly moving and have welcomed the appearance of what many consider to be society’s sub-class, often judged severely, and now represented in a work of fiction that actually invests them with hearts and souls.
    I’m afraid have to disagree roundly with your superior generalisation that people addicted to drugs are ‘not very interesting’ or ‘one note in their motivations and repetitive in their actions’.. in that case you were bound to find the book dull, but I wonder on what you base that assertion? Do you know a lot of them personally or have you worked in rehab? ‘Interesting’ is also subjective and relative, what I may find fascinating you may not and I appreciate that.
    I’m not being the great defender of the drug addict here, but I’m first and foremost a nurse and in my experience with people in extremis that isn’t a label that should be applied to any human being, and certainly those that I have worked with proved far from disinteresting, everyone is interesting in their own way and drug addicts are no exception, their humanity and their ‘interesting’ features may well be submerged but that makes it all the more important to perhaps find out the reasons why and seek it out…it’s there, and in some ways I think this is one of the crowning achievements of Jon McGregor’s novel. It’s a book I can recall with stark clarity six months on from reading it.
    What a good thing the world is full of different readers:-)

  10. Even the Dogs is my book of the year so far. Absolutely superb. I also liked both of McGregor’s previous novels. His writing comes across as much more natural to me than many authors so I’m afraid this is a fairly rare example of complete disagreement with John Self.

  11. You have perhaps come to it in a very literal way with a view to offering a critical and objective appraisal of its literary merits

    That is a kind way of putting it, dgr, when I think of it as my inability to see the wood for the trees. Nonetheless I did like several parts of the book, as detailed above, so there must be some reason why the rest did not work for me.

    As to drug addicts, I have known hardly any – perhaps one or two in the course of my employment – so my ‘superior generalisation’ comes almost exclusively from how they are portrayed in Even the Dogs. Drug addicts are people, of course, all individual and different, but my difficulty lay with McGregor’s portrayal of drug addicts as drug addicts, with all their other qualities, characteristics or activities reported as secondary.

    I’m certainly glad that people and their families who have experienced the ‘issues’ (horrible word) arising in the book have appreciated it much more than I have, as I know from the dgr interview that McGregor spent four years writing it, and I’m afraid my gut reaction to that information was “What a waste of time.”

    Trevor, I think Ishiguro’s point reflects my own feelings very well (though not necessarily my own feelings about David Mitchell!).

    Kevin, points all taken of course, but I do need to clarify that the first use of the word ‘important’ in my review reflected not what I perceived as McGregor’s intentions for the book (that it was going to be an ‘important’ book), but that I was guessing that the process of writing it assumed more importance for him once it was no longer a distraction from his second novel and became his main project of work. I am speculating that the book might have been better if ‘written with the left hand’ as it were, and was less deliberately and consciously worked and overworked.

    I had better add, for the avoidance of doubt, that none of my criticism of Even the Dogs comes from its subject matter. Anyone reading this blog regularly will know that I have no difficulty either with ‘unpleasant’ characters or themes, or with formal experimentation. It’s just that I don’t think McGregor does either of them especially well.

  12. I was surprised to read this commentary. I found Even the Dogs to be a haunting book. I keep thinking about the scenes where the ‘gang’ is hanging around inside the mortuary and nobody sees them there even though they come in close, wanting to touch the body. At first I thought this was the author trying to show Robert’s friends imagining what’s happening at the post-mortem, or was perhaps a sort of comment on the voyeurism of TV shows like Silent Witness. Now, however, I think it’s a post-modern technique to make us realise that all the officials dealing with the death and trying to find out what happened have not noticed these ‘invisible’ people from the underclass and so they’ve never bothered to ask them about what they know. At the same time, if the authorities did include them in the investigation and interview them, their evidence wouldn’t be admissible in court because they’ve all got lousy memories because of the drugs and because they can’t express themselves properly.
    This is powerful stuff, and a significant contribution to understanding one of the social problems of our time.

  13. I think your back tracking a bit John 🙂 Your review doesn’t make it clear that you hold Jon McGregor responsible for the impression you have of drug addicts per se, as uninteresting etc and you seem now to be shifting the blame for your own opinions (and forgive me for saying it but perhaps prejudices?) onto an author who I think has done a first rate job in revealing some of the causes of those addictions, and I think that’s an important distinction to make.
    I used to do battle for people like this, all judged as wasters and a drain on society and seriously misunderstood, yet many of them revealed a descent into addiction for reasons that you or I with our comfortable lives may not even begin to be able to imagine.
    We’re going to have to differ on your dismissal of the four years that JM took to write this as ‘a waste of time’:-) How many authors have had the guts and the courage to write a novel like this that exposes society’s prejudices in this way, it’s a much-needed 21st century first IMHO. There is the whole field of Medical Humanities which thirsts for books like this and I can’t think of another novel that reveals the depth and desperation of a drug-addictive existence as it is now, with such clarity and sensitivity.

  14. First up: dovegreyreader, allow me to take exception. That McGregor has managed to encapsulate the plight of drug abusers (and I know, and am related to, quite a few) is beyond question, and he is a skilled writer. I don’t question that. However, I do think that the writing comes from a very specific place that I have absolutely nothing to base such assumptions on: I think that McGregor, like Philip Hensher and a handful of others, are writing out of a deep love of fiction and writing; they are driven to do so, and can fashion something from that. But at the end of the day, the end result tends to be dead on the page. Present, correct, but no more.

    On the question of ‘duping’ critics, I didn’t mean to suggest that there was a specific aim to do such, but that, like tofu or soya, it can convince as a substitute for something that it’s not. I cannot imagine McGregor’s writing getting past a genuinely decent critic, as it didn’t here.

    Whilst saying all this, I do feel slightly mean-spirited (and did, when thinking back to my rather harsh comments). I certainly don’t want to insult McGregor and respect where he’s coming from. But ultimately: not a good writer, not for me, and utterly humourless to boot. A good stylist, but, admiration for his focus and tehnical abilities aside, he doesn’t pass muster.

    1. So what makes someone a “genuinely decent critic”, Lee?

      You seem to be saying that John Self is doing lit crit in his blog, and if he is, I think you must mean that KevinfromCanada and dovegreyreader are too… so then it follows that JS is “genuinely decent” since McGregor’ writing didn’t “get past him”, but those other silly critics couldn’t see through it. Do you realize how insulting that is?

      I don’t think of book bloggers at lit critics. If they were, I wouldn’t read their blogs.

      By the way, I am just a lowly reader who loved this book. I’ve probably hated a few books that you loved. I don’t think I’ve been duped.

    2. On the subject of literary critics, the minute the word ‘I think’ or ‘I like’ comes into any book review it places itself at some distance from genuine literary criticism and becomes subjective opinion likely to reveal personal prejudices and dislikes, and perhaps revealing far more about the writer of the piece than the book they may be writing about… which is all fine ( and a bear pit Michael Hofmann fell into headlong recently,) but best not to get the two confused Lee.
      Even the Dogs has been very well-received by the literary critics I’ve read so I doubt they’ve all been duped, and Jon McGregor was the first to admit that he knew not everyone would like or welcome this book, so I doubt he’ll be surprised should he read this:-)

      1. ‘…the minute the word ‘I think’ or ‘I like’ comes into any book review it places itself at some distance from genuine literary criticism and becomes subjective opinion likely to reveal personal prejudices and dislikes.’


        Are ‘literary critics’ utterly impersonal machines that merely formulate an appropriate but entirely random response to a piece of work, then? No, thought not. What a nonsensical, tautological argument. I’ll make sure I don’t get them confused, dovegreyreader. I’ll also remember to differentiate between a relatively distant (but far from impersonal) review of a book and a more familiar, explicitly opinionated one, shall I?

        ‘Even the Dogs has been very well-received by the literary critics I’ve read so I doubt they’ve all been duped, and Jon McGregor was the first to admit that he knew not everyone would like or welcome this book, so I doubt he’ll be surprised should he read this:-)’

        What’s your point here? Apart from glee that a book you like has been
        well-received elsewhere? That McGregor is inured by pre-emptively accepting some might like his book and some might dislike it? That my assertions are diminished in any way by your smug retort? Trying to freight your argument in such a way is, again, nonsensical. Like it or not, I feel the book and the writer to be poor, and your attempts at undermining my negative response to both is a sure sign of intolerance to unadherent viewpoints. As I’ve said elsewhere, I respect the fact that so many like this book. Getting hissy, as one or two have, the moment a favoured writer gets a rubbishing, is more than a little unfortunate.

  15. Sorry to have annoyed a few people here, totally unintentional. I meant no offence with the ‘critic’ comment (I’m ill-equipped to do as fine a job as Kevin does with his blog and the comment is retracted – I honestly meant that I feel McGregor is a decent but uninteresting writer. It’s got nothing to do with ‘decent’, it’s all about proclivities and I should’ve watched my mouth there). I’m more than prepared to accept that I’ve got this completely wrong, but I can only reassert that I find McGregor’s books basically bobbins.

    Colette, if I’ve insulted you there was no desire to I assure you. I don’t like John McGregor and I don’t rate his books – that’s no slight on you or anyone else and that’s my final word on it. We all hate having those we admire knocked, I know. But I must (although I’ll think it through a wee bit better next time I write such toxic stuff) say what I think. And I think the writer in question is not good. My opinion is just that: of no import beyond these letters.

    1. I have no problem with you disliking McGregor books or any book for that matter. There are plenty of books I dislike and I have no qualms about saying so, and you should absolutely say what you think. What I objected to is what seemed to be ridicule of those who liked the book, as if there is some sort of right or wrong associated with opinion on this book. Please don’t confuse my objection with “hate having those we admire knocked”. That’s not it at all.

      1. ‘…you should absolutely say what you think.’

        Really, Colette? Well, thanks for that. Much appreciate your rather generous gesture there.

        I’m not convinced, sorry. You protest a wee bit too much. My mesasge was a bit muddled – entirely my fault – but I fear I’ve touched a nerve. For that, I’m sorry. You like the book, I don’t, and I find the writer quite dull. I admire and respect him for having a go but he’s failed in my opinion and I’m sorry you don’t like my rather brash dismissal of his work. I agree entirely with what Mary has to say about this – I think you’re being a little precious about a favoured author and have taken my response personally. I in no way think, nor did I, that someone liking this is in any way at fault. My uncle loves Bernard Cornwell. It hasn’t affected our relationship in any way whatsoever.

  16. What I like about this blog is that bloggers feel free to criticise ( or praise) authors in a robust and often amusing manner. I feel some of the reactions here to John and Lee’s postings sound rather pious – even a hint of political correctness. I hope we’re not going to go down that rather anodyne route whereby every author’s work has to treated with kid gloves and even the mildest ridicule has to be toned down for fear of hurting someone’s feelings.

  17. DGR mentioned ‘prejudices’ earlier. I think it’s probably true to say that I do have prejudices about drug addicts, in the same way that I have prejudices about investment bankers or estate agents or any other subgroup which is commonly referred to in a monotone in the media (by which I mean not just journalism but all media: books, films, songs etc) but which I have little personal experience of. The difficulty is that McGregor does not do much in Even the Dogs, so far as I can see, to overturn common preconceptions and stereotypes about drug addicts. The only other character I could remember offhand was Danny, whose experiences make up chapter 2, and who (flicking through his narrative again) is portrayed as paranoid, unstable, fearful of the police etc.

    Now that I have picked the book off the shelves again (well, off the charity shop pile…), I’ve opened it literally at random and found the following sentence:

    Started drinking outside the post office one morning, waiting to pick up their giros, and after a while they too their drinks to Robert’s front step and watched H running around making friends with the other dogs in the street.

    Again this hardly seems a prejudice-challenging depiction of addiction. What about, instead, a story about an addict who functions in society, who holds down a job and maintains a family, but suffers the torments of the damned all the same? Now that would be novel.

  18. What about, instead, a story about an addict who functions in society, who holds down a job and maintains a family, but suffers the torments of the damned all the same?

    That would be Robert, right? Before Yvonne left him and he started (continued?) his inevitable descent.

    One of the aspects of the novel that I found interesting is the way that his daughter maintained her affection for him.

  19. What an incredible reaction. Personally, I really liked If Nobody Talks, but there may be something true in that appreciation of the narrative as something out of a creative writing workshop… maybe.
    Anyway John, (and sorry to stray here), i know you had problems with Barker’s Darkmans, but let me ask you to give it a chance with “Burley Cross…”, it’s just great!

  20. I haven’t read this book, but then I’m not half as well read as I would like to be, but Lee’s comments reminded me of the (undeserved) flood of praise that was recently doled out for Paul Harding’s mediocre “Tinkers”. I think – and I *think* we can all agree on that, that there are books that just push critics’ buttons in the right way. Dan Green has a new review of Richard Russo’s work out that stretches the same exact points. There is just some writing that does well with critics not because it’s so good, but because it is competent and fits a certain mold.

  21. This is a really fascinating discussion which seems to me to have become primarily about the semantics of reviewing books rather than this specific book per se.

    I loved Even the Dogs – it is by far the best work of literary fiction I have read this year and probably the most lyrical and poetic book I’ve read for two or three years. The pacing of the prose, the chorus of voices narrating it, the blurring of life and death. Aesthetically I found it an absolute delight to read. And this is where I think the Ishiguro quote is particularly interesting, because I don’t think Even the Dogs is primarily an important book or not. I respect DGRs perspective and have decided to trust his view that it is an adept account of the addicted, homeless lifestyle of which I know next to nothing, but that is where it ends for me. If it is this issue that most interests the reader then I would advise you to check out DGRs review. What Even the Dogs did do was give me what Ishiguro describes as “the exhileration of being swept into another, different world.” It is the literary merit over all else, the sumptuous, lilting prose, that I adored here.

    On the subject of the reviewer being present in a review, I’m of the opinion that this is one of the more interesting aspects of book blogging and one of it’s chief virtues. Professional reviewing has tended to be focused on theme and content, where a book may sit in the pantheon of literature, and such like, than on what is of primary concequence to the reader: the experience of reading it. Objectivity is impossible, and as a result I prefer the I to exist as a present force within a book review, rather than hiding behind analysis of more factual questions.

    This is nothing more than a personal preference. Overall, I think this is a fair review, and one which takes into account John’s inherent predisposition towards frustration with Jon McGregor that perhaps overshadows the perspective.

    For me, though, this is a fantastic book and one that will fully deserve to win a major award in the months to come. (In case anyone is interested, you can read my review of Even the Dogs at )

  22. Interesting response, Lee, as I didn’t take Mary’s comments to be about me at all. I have not mentioned the content of the book or the characters, so how could my comments be deemed as pious or politically correct (which you translated as “precious”).

    I don’t think it’s going to help to point out, once again, that I don’t mind if people don’t like a book or author that I like. You can just say I protest too much and go back to your original incorrect conclusion!

    Oh well.

  23. Let’s not fight. I’m glad you enjoyed the book and only wish I had. It’s always good to see someone getting enthused by a book, to be honest. My normal response to antipathy towards a book I like is one of indifference; my enjoyment is in no way troubled. It’s more a sense of: damn, I so wanted them to like it. I do find why a person likes a, b and c and not d fascinating, though – the job of recommening books is often perilous and littered with rebuke.

    1. Yes, though it’s intermittently replenished and a bit off-the-cuff, unlike this, Kevin’s site, Mookse, Pechorin’s Journal et al (all decent critics), which are ‘proper’ blogs. And it’s on film, thus far. No Jon McGregor reviews planned.

  24. Wow, bet you didn’t expect this kind of response John?!

    I haven’t read this book yet and I’m still not sure about it having read this review and others and the comments here as well. I did read his début If Nobody Speaks…and loved it. It was a book I devoured quickly and had a very emotional response to, surprising perhaps given that the characters aren’t referred to by name but by distinguishing features (the man with the burnt hands). When I then bought that book for friends and family as a gift, eagerly awaiting their own gushing responses to it, I was surprised to find that they found it stylistically off-putting from the first page and weren’t that fussed. All of that has been reflected in the comments here and it seems that McGregor’s writing is the kind that can affect readers in very different ways and even the same reader depending on what way they approach it.

    I had a copy of his second novel on the shelf for years and tried to start it a couple of times but struggled and was put off by the novel’s conceit (narrative structured around memorabilia). When I read some early reviews of this latest book I’ll admit that my heart sank when I heard about some of the stylistic tricks employed – why does he have to be so tricksy? I thought.

    And so I find myself behaving with the same prejudice that had so upset me when I made a gift of his work to others. What a rum state of affairs! I’m not sure how to counter it yet, or whether I should, but it’s been fascinating to read how it continues to be played out here.

    1. I think you should give this a go, William. So Many Ways to Begin is the weekest of Jon’s books and Even the Dogs is much more reminiscent of If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things. There is a similar focus on one event, drawing it out, looking at it from all sorts of angles, and finally revealing more of it than you expect.

      If you loved his first book, I’d highly advice you to read this. In my opinion, it’s even better.

  25. I gave up on Even the Dogs today after one week and 100 or so pages. The style failed to pull me into even a passing interest in the lives sketched. Very disappointing, as I was unable to find any real characterization amid the chaotic attempt to create the atmosphere and “feel” of these desperate lives. After deciding to jump ship, I skimmed through to the ending and immediately thought that Robert’s story might have sparked some interest had it been placed where a reader could grab hold earlier rather than later. I realize that doing this would have sacrificed the device, the backwards telling which dangles the promise of some contact with a real depiction of Robert alive. There were a few glimpses, just not enough to sustain interest.

    This same device did cause me to make a comparison to the ways in which these marginalized persons are often perceived in real life- as nuisance, muddied frenzy, as some Thing to be struggled with until, often at the very end, their stories are made known.

  26. I came across the following by chance, and thought it interesting in light of the discussion up-thread. It’s from a review of a former crack addict’s memoir.

    “Addicts tend to dwell in the ecstasy of ignition, that moment when endorphins are first beckoned and the show begins, but in a more sober, retrospective light, the fact remains that addiction’s primary aspect is boredom — the getting and using of the same substance over and over until death, jail or recovery intervenes. The chronic nature of any activity, even one involving powerful narcotics, renders it prosaic over time.

    As the author of my own memoir about crack addiction, I don’t pretend to know how to avoid the numbing narrative aspects of drug use. But certainly a numerical autopsy is not sufficient. Even the most sweeping tale of debauchery — and Clegg lived through a doozy — has to find texture and resonance in other matters. As his book progresses, Clegg himself seems bored by even the most piquant episodes.”

    Full article is at:

  27. Interesting discussion.

    I grew up among alcoholics and addicts (family and family friends, I wasn’t one myself). My experience of heroin addicts is that actually they are pretty alike. One of the most terrible things heroin in particular does is reduce people’s individuality, the themness of them is eroded and replaced with the drug. It’s a horrible thing.

    The only novel I’ve read on the topic that’s impressed me was Trainspotting. Now sadly my memory of the book is mostly overwritten by that of the film, but it managed the challenging task of making them interesting.

    The truth is addicts are fundamentally dull, which I think makes writing about them very difficult. Welsh was fuelled with a desire to say something new and more importantly something true of his experience which wasn’t otherwise being said. He wrote with passion. Some of his later works suffered in my view from that passion no longer being there.

    I’m not sure I’m hearing there’s passion in this book. It’s needed though, because all too many addicts’ stories are the same story. This sounds like that same story, yet again.

    As a minor addendum, not all addicts lives go the same way of course. In my own family’s case both drugs and drink were kicked (sometime after I left home so not quite sure how) and everyone went on to be much happier and to be themselves again. It turned out they were good people, it’s just the peopleness of them got swallowed up for a while.

    In summary therefore, remember kids, winners don’t do drugs! Or something like that…

  28. On the subject of blogging for me the personal is part of the appeal. All reviews, all criticism, is personal. We have our prejudices, our interests, our passions. We can be open about them so readers can take them into account, or we can pretend we’re objective. I prefer the former.

    The advantage of a blog over a newspaper review is often that you know where the blogger is coming from. That’s sometimes true of a professional review, but often not and it is important information.

  29. This is a fascinating discussion. It’s absurd to think that, just because an author fails to create convincing characters, that a reader, evaluating the work, and feeling disappointed, is made to feel that their criticism is bestowed on actual people – the milieu which the reader depends on the author to accurately render but which has been compromised by the author’s slipshod performance. This is such a tyranny. Why do so many of the comments on this blog think it’s an indictment on J Self, not J McGregor. Come on, guys, this is fiction. It’s about character.

    1. I tend to agree with you, Jon. I don’t think our taste in books should be influenced by whether the subject matter is “important”, etc. I did not have the same reaction as John Self or Lee Monks – I thought the book was well written and the characters were very real to me (not because they were addicts but because of how McGregor wrote them).

  30. I loved If Nobody Speaks… I was somewhat disappointed with So Many Ways… and I was quite impressed by Even the Dogs. So I’ve enjoyed the review and discussions here very much. I personally find that McGregor inspires empathy for his characters better than many other writers and I’m a sucker for lyrical writing. I look forward to your thoughts on other novels that interest me.

  31. Having only seen unanimous praise for McGregor’s work, I wondered whether (i.e. was hoping & searching for) any critics who found fault with it…

    I’ve only read the first book and extracts from the others (so am very ill equipped to judge), but had such a violently negative and visceral reaction to it that I was amazed to think I could be in the minority.

    Essentially, I think he’s simply not up to the subject matter he chooses (the forgotten, the liminal, the excluded, the kooky, the damaged) and his treatment (that quiet, grave tone) is gratingly worthy.

    I think there’s something awfully, dangerously sentimental about his work – in the most insidious way. Rather than offering me a more expansive outlook on life, his conception shrinks it to fit in the tiny kitchen sink in his lonely dollhouse. It’s reductionary.

    He ends up unintentionally patronising his characters (and by extension, us i.e. people, their real-life precedents) with his cloying and overabundant empathy – he wants to tell their story, he’s listening, he cares, he feels their pain. To me it’s distasteful and mawkish. I don’t think his heart is as big as he thinks it is. He’s no Dostoevsky.

    Finally, his style…Have you noticed the overblown understated-melodramatic quality of his writing? – layers of repetitive description, short sentences (you can feel the dramatic pauses between them), and we’re always on the outside of his characters (rarely gaining access to their thoughts and interiority) creating a limp cinematic affect, much like an Oxfam ad shot in dark hues with a sombre voice-over – although I have the impression McGregor would narrate super-plaintively. It’s rather wet, no?

    And yes, his titles are precious.

    Gosh. It must be hard work being an author. Can’t please everyone.

  32. Coming so very late into this discussion, with so many interesting and varied comments from readers, I want only to say, in praise of “Even the Dogs,” that the writing is drenched in empathy the way a pancake may be drenched in maple syrup. Simply to read your way through McGregor’s book is to empathize. No other options are available.

    1. A further thought to add to my previous comment about empathy, inspired by listening to Handel’s Messiah on YouTube yesterday–“He was despised and rejected, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” Such could be said of each one of McGregor’s addicts and homeless in “Even the Dogs.” Wow!

      In a video interview, McGregor contrasted his subject matter with a certain hugely successful novel about a brain surgeon. It would be a stretch to claim that McEwan’s “Saturday” even comes close to evoking a similar level of emotion and concern for humanity. The brain may be tickled, but the heart remains untouched.

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