Saturday, 3 April 2010

Book Review: Even the Dogs - Jon McGregor

Read: March 2010

They break down the door at the end of December and carry the body away.  

The air is cold and vice-like, the sky a scouring steel-eyed blue, the trees bleached bone-white in the frosted light of the sun. We stand in a huddle by the bolted door.  

Prose this good – this sparingly, articulately, precisely composed – does not come along every day. Jon McGregor has long been considered one of finest lyrical novelists of his generation, and Even the Dogs is his best novel yet. Taut, controlled, uncomfortable, the prose grips you like a vice from the first sentence and doesn’t let go. At times the vividness of the winter-frozen air takes one's breath away. I will be shocked if it doesn’t carry away a major prize this year.

When he was alive, Robert Radcliffe was an obese and lonely alcoholic who hadn’t been outside his dilapidated flat in years. But he is dead now, found by two police officers putrefying amidst the broken glass and bottles and cans and blankets and clothes and car tyres on his living room floor. His skin is swollen and softening, an “oily pool of fluids spreading across the floor.”

Statutory procedures kick in. They take him away to a mortuary, conduct a post-mortem, hold an inquest, and cremate his rotten body. It is quick, efficient. More attention than Robert has received for years.

We gather together in the room, sitting, standing, leaning against the wall, and we wait. For the morning. For someone to come back. For something to happen.

Waiting is one thing we’re good at, as it happens.

We’ve had a lot of practice.

We’ve got the time.

We’ve got all the time in the world.

We follow the progress of his body through that nameless city, accompanied by a disembodied chorus of mourners who seem to have known him when he was alive. But who are they? They speak in an eerily inclusive first person plural voice, ghost-like and omniscient, drifting from one scene to another without the encumbrance of a physical form. Over five chapters we follow the corpse on it’s final journey, dipping into the past to understand how he came to this fate, assembling fragmentary portraits of Robert, and those friends of his now watching on.

These narratives flow like a film script. Montages, reminiscences, shots fading in and out of focus. We see Robert as a younger man, with his partner Yvonne, lovingly setting up home together, bathing their daughter. Life, love, sex. But things start to go wrong. Robert has undiagnosed headaches and takes to drinking. Yvonne leaves, taking Laura with her. Robert stays put, awaiting their return. At some point, others arrive: squatters, addicts, the disenfranchised. There is Danny, an inexperienced young heroin addict who first discovers the body and needs to find someone to tell. Heather, with a third eye tattooed on her ageing forehead. Mike, a paranoid schizophrenic Scouser. Steve, ex-army, alcoholic, never forgets to lay his socks out to dry. Ant, Ben, Jamesie, Maggie. And, of course, Laura. One by one they step into focus and we hear their stories from their point of view, fuelled by defiance, anger, resentment, hope, shame, gratitude, comradeship, obsession.

What emerges is a harsh and unflinching vision of life on the margins of society. Well-researched and – I’m told by those who know such things – impressively true to life, it is about addiction that leaves you shaking, diarrhetic, desperate for another fix. Addiction that consumes and contorts life to its satisfaction. Addiction full of earth shattering lows and orgasmic highs, each repeating themselves day in day out, month in month out, year in year out. It is an inherently human tale, told in the characters' own voices, unflinching in content or conclusion. Taking his queue from authors such as James Kelman and William Faulkner the dialect is contracted and ugly, yet perceptive and with internal cadences all of its own. There is no effort to shock, or explain. Only to understand. And perhaps bear witness.

There’s a haunting ethereal quality to the narrative, an urgent need driving it forward even as it swirls and loops about and jumps backwards and forwards, in and out of character. It is a book that is difficult to describe without accidentally putting readers off. So next time you are in a bookshop, pick it up and read the first couple of pages, and see what you think. The prose will get you, even if this review does not.

Indeed, so fine are the words within this short novel it seems inappropriate to mention the book as a physical product. Yet it is also one of the most beautiful books I have ever held. Published in a new 'bendyback' format that is halfway between hardback and paperback, and bound in a cloth jacket that contributes an almost three dimensional effect to the blooming yellow flowers sprouting against a slate-grey sky, Even The Dogs is an all-round beautiful book. The paper is thick and grainy, the typeface rich and resplendent and enticing to the eye.

Yet it remains the prose that make it the great book it is. Through his stunning command of poetic prose, Jon McGregor tells a story like a still life painting, a freeze-frame of living, breathing tissue as immediate and enthralling as if one were watching with one's own eyes. Anyone who liked his multi-award-winning debut, If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, will be entranced by this book. It may not be comfortable reading, but the gurgling unease in the pit of one's stomach is proof of the visceral power of the novel. Even the Dogs is a sumptuous and engaging glimpse into the easily forgotten seams of society.

Bloomsbury, February 2010, 9780747599449, 208pp


9 out of 10

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