The best book makes an Impac

Thu, Jun 14, 2012, 01:00

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.”

It is stylised and distanced, very much the prose work of a film maker. In it he attempted to explore a late summer’s day in which nothing much happens, a day like the one on which Princess Diana died. It is meticulously observed and rich in the long, slow panning cinematic shots that he favours. Still, whatever its faults, it established him as a serious literary writer.

So Many Ways to Begin followed four years later. It is a stronger, less oblique work about David Carter, a museum curator, and his wife, whose marriage is in crisis. There are vague hints of WG Sebald, if only in the way in which David looks to letters and photographs. McGregor admires Sebald’s work and refers to how he slowly came to an understanding of The Rings of Saturn. Throughout our conversation, McGregor speaks with total honesty; there is nothing glib or practised about his responses.

Ironically, although the German writer settled in Norwich, McGregor never met him. Life is full of such realities, a fact of which McGregor is acutely aware. “I was happier with the second novel; I felt it was less self-conscious, not as distanced. It was well received but not as well as the first.”

Unlike many writers, he admits to reading reviews and is interested in how others see his work. I had felt that the first two novels were clearly accomplished and well crafted, if heavily choreographed, but even so it was obvious that McGregor was doing something very different. He agrees. “That’s true, but not quite what I wanted. I think I kept being overly lyrical.”

He was still a film maker writing scenes through the eyes of a camera. But the publication of Even the Dogs in February 2010 marked a new departure. It was my book of the year, ahead of even Paul Harding’s superbly elegiac Tinkers.

“I wanted to write a book that was not filmable,” stresses McGregor, “one in which the language was all-important and couldn’t be lost.” He pauses in that thoughtful way he has. He wanted Even the Dogs to convey a shared compassion. Not just between the writer and the reader – and that is very powerful – but between the characters. At the heart of the story is Robert, an alcoholic whose life has fallen apart. He has lost his wife and child and has been found dead, his starving dog dying beside him. A chorus watches the horror unfolding. They are not voyeurs. Instead, they are openly bewildered, shocked, helpless and deeply moved.

“I wanted to give a sense of time passing; I didn’t want to write a ghost story. It could have become one, but I didn’t want that, only the way time makes changes.” The way new wallpaper fades, a freshly painted wall becomes grubby. He nods.

The descriptive force of McGregor’s prose is hypnotic, yet it is really the characters that elevate the narrative to a sublime profundity in that way that Virginia Woolf achieved in her finest novel, To the Lighthouse. “I did a great deal of preparation. I worked on the characters before I wrote the book, I had them already. The writing didn’t take long.” In fact, he recalls having written the first chapter soon after he wrote his first novel. “Then I left it.”

I mention that it shares the strange power of Jim Crace’s wonderful novel Being Dead (1999). McGregor’s face lights up. “I read that book when I was writing Even the Dogs, it is a great novel. I also read [William Faulkner’s] As I Lay Dying.” He pauses, one of his many in the conversation. He is easy to be with because of his calm. Although he looks young, he has the ease, the serenity of a much older person.

Writing is difficult. McGregor feels it must be worked at, can always be improved and he is unusually self-critical. He smiles mid-sentence as if a thought has just struck him: “I remember hearing John McGahern reading That They May Face the Rising Sun on the radio. He was a great reader, but there was more; it was the way he read the sentences in this declamatory style. I could see that this was the way to write, to make it real.”

As for reading fiction, he says he does read a lot. “At the moment I’m reading a lot of short fiction. Yes, I read but never enough. The pile always gets bigger.”

When writing Even the Dogs he spoke to recovered drug addicts and listened to the way they described the early thrills of heroin, “the warmth, the feeling of being secure, protected. There used to be an ad for Ready Brek, you’d see children walking off to school. It made me think of that.”

Again, he pauses, caught by the strangeness and then describes how the former addicts spoke of the pain and the terror that begins later. “I was speaking to one of these men and he suddenly pointed to a few figures walking very quickly down the street, like Olympic walkers. He told me that they were on the way to meet their dealers. He could tell.”

It seems a chilling recollection and McGregor remarks on how difficult it is to understand how people can do such damage to themselves. “Why do these things happen?” When I comment that Even the Dogs reads almost as a wake for Robert, he seems pleased and replies: “That’s what I wanted it to be.”

Impac 2012 The shortlist:

Even the Dogsby Jon McGregor (Bloomsbury)

Rocks in the Bellyby Jon Bauer (Scribe Publications)

The Matter with Morrisby David Bergen (Harper Collins)

A Visit from the Goon Squadby Jennifer Egan (Alfred A Knopf)

The Memory of Loveby Aminatta Forna (Bloomsbury Publishing)

Matterhornby Karl Marlantes (Atlantic Monthly Press)

Landedby Tim Pears (William Heinemann)

Limassolby Yishai Sarid, translated by Barbara Harshav (Europa Editions)

The Eternal Sonby Cristovão Tezza, translated by Alison Entrekin (Scribe Publications)

Lean on Peteby Willy Vlautin (Faber & Faber)