jon mcgregor, if nobody speaks of remarkable things, 2002.
W— and S— gave me this book as an ordination present. I opened it, with W— sitting in my office with me, and he told me that they wanted to give me something that they didn’t think I’d have read, and something that might speak to my ordination and my new urban context for ministry. He told me that it revolved around an event, and spoke of a series of individuals’ reactions to that event, how they had been irrevocably scarred by their experience of it. I was intrigued. I started to read the book a night or two later, and was awed by the first few pages: they’re remarkable. I knew I needed some uninterrupted time to read this book, and so I brought it with me on retreat.
The first pages are lyrical: they describe the song of a city, and how it pauses for only the briefest of moments. It’s a beautiful prose poem, and reading it I couldn’t help but think of Wordsworth’s “Composed Upon Westminster Bridge”: it’s that descriptive, that evocative.
From there, the scars are evident almost immediately. What’s astonishing is how the cast of characters remain almost entirely nameless: we meet and remember them by description, by the sort of characteristics we would notice if we encountered them in our neighbourhood but never said more than a polite “hello”—and it’s entirely intentional, a sharply pointed comment about our intertwined lives but about how we maintain such incredible gulfs of separation with our very neighbours. What astonishes me is that the writing makes it work, that the writing is capable of sustaining the effort across the 275 pages of the novel: names, despite the assertion in T.S. Eliot’s feline poetry, do not always convey our deepest beings, our longings and sorrows and our delights and our joys. One of the effects is that each segment, each brief piece about some of the very real people feels anecdotal—just a story about someone I happened to know. They are anecdotes made universal by their lack of identification yet at the same time deeply real and particular in the crisply rendered details that mcgregor feeds us as we read.
The prose does not remain as stunning throughout as in the first few magnificent pages, but it’s never expository, never dull: it remains elusive, revealing bit by bit in a skilfully crafted story. There are some passages, though, which live up to the promise of those first pages. While it is my habit to quote from books in entries in this blog, I’m not going to, with this book: the passages are sharper and stronger in context, and while not less powerful as excerpts, they convey more still in situ. The passage that gives the book its title is one such; for it alone, this book is worth reading. The images—oh, the bungee jumping!—are a delight, and mcgregor handles them so deftly that I’d be interested indeed to know if he writes poetry, as well. As the plot moves slowly along, as we watch relationships develop we move inexorably closer to learning the events of the tragic day: after such a prolonged build-up, it was a relief that, though entirely prosaic, they did not disappoint and were indeed so strong as to move me to tears.
Thank you, W— and S— for this lovely and wonderful gift which I now look forward to re-reading and to sharing with others. You certainly succeeded in all your objectives with this present! For those who read this blog and take it seriously, I’d like to give you a strong recommendation: go and buy this book, and devour it. You’ll thank W— and S—, too.