12 January, 2012

If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things - Jon McGregor



'If you listen, you can hear it.
The city, it sings'

I read this off the back of recommendations from work colleagues - they raved about the poetry in the novel and its study of 'the ordinary' so I thought I'd give it a go. Published in 2002, the book was long-listed for the Booker prize and won other awards.


The opening pages of the book are some of the most poetic I have read in a novel. The noise of the city is conjured not just in the words themselves, but by the sounds of the words and the rhythm of the sentences - McGregor is both a poet and lyricist, his prose sings with simplicity and sharpness. As with the rest of the pages, he tries to draw out the 'extraordinary' from the mundane. The book switches between two narratives - I won't spoil them or their connection for you - which serve each other in piecing together McGregor's modern fable.

The present-tense immediacy of the prose and the relaxation of punctuation rules give the novel a fluid rhythm and make it, I believe, a cinematic tale, only told in words. McGregor almost negates the presence of the narrator in that his words describe actions and images that allow the story and characters to present themselves without interruption. It is almost as if McGregor challenged himself to give a cinematic experience of life, but in a novel. Thus, the exposition is relaxed and natural; it takes time to understand how the nameless characters fit into the street-life and overall story, but it is a rewarding style worth sticking with.


The two stories head to a dénouement which explains both tales without forced exposition and comparison.  Not truly extraordinary by any means, the event, which finally occurs, draws the street together with short cinematic jumps between the actions of each character, almost all of whom fall completely silent; their actions speak their words. McGregor shows the way in which, in his own character's words 'if nobody speaks of remarkable things, how can they be called remarkable?' The fluid nature of the prose, neglecting speech marks and any unnecessary punctuation, seems to show that McGregor is not committing life to print - he is showing life as it is, not as an art-form or representation. And, in contrast to that, the point is made that if nobody talks about our lives in the modern world, how will they be known and remembered as remarkable?

'There is no pause or rewind... the moment will never be again, the moment is gone'

A remarkable book (I went there), McGregor's first novel has been said to be something he has yet to match in his other pursuits but the writer has a spirit in him that seems to hard to subdue. The book, written in 2002, seems to portray a slightly dated and kitsch northern England, but this doesn't spoil how enjoyable a read the novel is. Having been criticised for being too anonymous and having characters it was difficult to care for, I read the book with trepidation but aren't these criticisms McGregor's point? We are not really endeared to all our neighbours and their troubles as maybe we should be; perhaps we should take more stock of the remarkable achievements and events around us, or our lives will be forgotten.


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