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Lean Fall Stand: Eloquent mapping of geographer’s disorientation

Jon McGregor explores Antarctic and Cambridge landscapes of stroke-hit researcher

Lean, Fall, Stand
Lean, Fall, Stand
Author: Jon McGregor
ISBN-13: 9780008204907
Publisher: Fourth Estate
Guideline Price: £14.99

In his account of reaching the South Pole, the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen called Antarctica “the boundless plain” and “an endless, uniform surface . . . that was lost in the horizon”. The combined monotony and vastness played tricks on his team. “The surface remained as before – flat and even. We ourselves had a feeling that we were ascending, but, as the future will show, this was only imagination.”

In Jon McGregor’s latest novel, Luke Adebayo, a postdoctoral geographer updating Antarctic maps, feels similarly disoriented: “Actually featureless didn’t quite describe it; there were mountains, and ridges, and slopes of scree, and glaciers moving down into inlets and sounds. But without trees, or rivers, or buildings, it was difficult to arrange what he was seeing into any kind of perspective. There was no obvious difference between one mile and fifty.”

This confusion of perspective entices him and two teammates to split up for a photo op: Robert “Doc” Wright, their guide with 30 years of Antarctic experience, stands in the distance.

Luke stands in the foreground, to give a sense of depth. And Thomas Myers, another post-doc researcher, stands behind the camera. But when a sudden storm separates them, he becomes trapped on an ice floe. Robert suffers a stroke. One of the young men doesn’t survive.


The rest of Lean Fall Stand is preoccupied with Robert’s recovery in Cambridge, with his wife Anna, a climate scientist, becoming his carer. Having initially not wanted to marry, Anna came round to the idea because Robert’s Antarctic work would give her space. But after the arrival of children, his routine absences of months or even whole years felt like avoiding responsibility. Now, she resents her resentment of him being away: “He’s not ever going away now, is he?” she worries.

Unshowy accomplishment

In 2017’s Costa Prize-winning Reservoir 13, the life of a village was narrated in unparagraphed, polyphonic blocks of text, in which McGregor unobtrusively united the perspectives of various members of the community in a single flow. These passages originally hung on the disappearance of a 13-year-old girl, but over years the unsolved tragedy fades from the collective story, while the voices of the community remain. His latest employs a similar drift in its focus from section to section, and demonstrates similar unshowy accomplishment.

During Doc’s stroke, conventional narrative deteriorates into a confused but controlled stream of consciousness: “Anna, I’m worried about these two. His face was glass against the cold . . . Anna was required. Action”; “I am hurt. I am he who is hurt. I am here. Numb the rub faith. The lips flap floppy and the words not come.” Equally well-handled is the final act – though it seems diffuse with new narrators at first – in which he and Anna attend a support group for people with aphasia. Robert’s attempt to tell his own story, and take part in the stories of other sufferers, is rendered with warmth, precision and humour. McGregor has a reputation for being a writer’s writer, and I found myself frequently stunned at how eloquent he could make ineloquence.

Moments of less pronounced virtuosity go the furthest, however. Just as the “purity” and valour Robert associates with his work isn’t the book’s emotional centre. At the start, Luke asks Robert how he never gets bored of Antarctica. He casts it in a sort of arcadian glow. “It’s a timeless landscape. Nothing changes . . . When I’m back in Cambridge, things are always changing: new roads, new estates, buildings knocked down and thrown up. Litter everywhere. Tourists crowding the pavements.”

Responsibilities of care

In this landscape Robert can also imagine himself on the end of a pristine lineage of stolid explorers, and his contribution – maintaining outposts, assisting the research of others – as noble and essential. But what he sees both as achievement and self-sacrifice is contrasted with the responsibilities of care which fall to Anna. The convergence of them in the middle of the book is evoked with relentlessness. “On the ward, Dr Jones was waiting to talk to them. There were messages on her phone from Robert’s sister, from Brian at the Institute, from a parcel delivery company, and from her colleagues at work. She had nothing in for dinner that night. The house desperately needed cleaning. She needed to find time to get to the office.”

After years of having no say in her husband’s presence or absence, she now must act, beyond his day-to-day care, as a liaison or administrator for the circus his misfortune has brought in its wake. The fictitious Antarctic Research Institute attempts to investigate Robert’s culpability in events, while he is in the early stages of relearning how to speak. There is a constant static of people pestering her for updates while she is kept in the dark herself. There are relatives who impose themselves and expect to be looked after and unsympathetic colleagues of her own. It feels right that this is given centre stage, and strange that this should in a way feel like a relatively new frontier.