The best book makes an Impac
LITERARY-PANEL judges are invariably criticised, at times vilified. But when they get it right, they can get it very right indeed.
This year’s Impac International Dublin Literary Award has been won by not only the best book, but by a very rare work indeed. Even the Dogs by British writer Jon McGregor is disturbing, profound and very beautiful. It is masterful; a genuine work of art that inspires empathy. He glances down at his hands and nods agreement at the word “empathy” before adding: “I wanted it to have compassion, humanity. It is too easy to say ‘oh this is a book about drug addicts, the homeless, the marginalised’, and look at them from a distance.”
McGregor smiles and recalls how often he has been asked to offer his solution for healing society. “I never intended it to be that though. I just wanted to say this is what happens; people are living like this all around us. We think they are invisible, but they’re there; we just don’t want to see them.”
The book is not a political tract; it is instead a very human response to how the lost live. McGregor has articulated what it is like to look at a 50-year-old down-and-out and wonder what led to a life on the street. “Exactly, I think that is the point; they are lost and how did this happen.”
His fiction is about taking a closer look. The softly-spoken McGregor, a father of two with a third baby due in August, is 36. Despite his calm, gentle demeanour and his resemblance to Ian McEwan, he still looks like a student. His boyish face wears a slightly preoccupied expression of mild surprise. He looks as if he could be easily hurt and whoever caused that pain would have to feel badly about it. There is a natural goodness about this vegetarian who avoids flying because of the carbon footprint; he is concerned with the point at which the ordinary descends into tragedy.
However mawkish it sounds, Jon McGregor is special, unique in the context not just of British writing, but of international fiction. Most articles mention that he was born in Bermuda. He shrugs at this and explains that he was only there for about five or six months. “My father is a curate. His first post had been in south London, then he saw an advertisement for a curateship in Bermuda and off my parents went. I grew up in Norwich.”
McGregor, the third of four children, was not particularly literary in that although he always liked reading, he didn’t take English at A-levels. “I did history, communications and theatre studies – theatre studies was a very good course; we studied Brecht and Kafka and Stanislavski.”
On finishing school, he went north to Bradford University to study media technology and production. Again, not an overly literary choice for a writer. McGregor laughs outright and explains: “I was very interested in film and photography.” Bradford is near Leeds and he has a trace of Yorkshire in an accent he describes as “bits and pieces”. He was soon to discover that film-making has its own problems: “You are too dependent on other people.”
Before he had decided to concentrate on fiction he was already writing scripts, outlines and proposals – frequently frustrating activities. His first novel, If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, was published in 2002. At the time he was working in a restaurant, washing up. It was very well received and he quickly progressed from having a first novel published to being a prize-wining author. “That first book is my most successful to date and there is a lot about it that I don’t like: it was, what, 12 years ago?” he grimaces. “It’s too forced, overly lyrical. It makes me cringe.”