IF James Joyce’s short stories were epiphanies, then Jon McGregor’s are interruptions; less a moment of divine revelation than the universe giving a cough or two.
It’s an entirely appropriate form, though, for 21st-century readers who feel that life is an ordinary and mundane process, punctuated only by sometimes inarticulate interruptions. Which may or may not change everything for them.
For those of us who like pared-back prose, McGregor is a modern master at the art, and here style matches form too, as ordinary speech and simple sentences embody the ordinariness of life.
Each story in this volume is set in a part of the Norfolk landscape which McGregor clearly loves – one of the more playful tales, “New York’” is set in New York, Lincolnshire, where the narrator adopts a New York voice to describe two Polish workers waiting for a ride that never arrives – and the relationship between the protagonists and the fenland around them is crucial.
This relationship is never more relevant than in “In Winter the Sky”, in which a middle-aged farmer reflects on a youthful decision to bury the drunken pedestrian he’s accidentally run over and killed in an embankment grave. Beside his recollections of the incident sit his wife’s poems that tap into his guilt. He did it for her, is the excuse he’s told himself over the years. But now it’s time to tell her.
McGregor likes to chart the changing nature of the landscape but in unsentimental ways – in “Airshow”, a grandfather who once worked as an armourer during the war at a local airfield can’t understand why day-trippers want to flock in such numbers to see the memorial flight of vintage aircraft; in “What Happened to Mr Davison”, an altercation between neighbours over their land has resulted in something tragic, never spelt out; in “I’ll Buy You a Shovel”, the folk of Marshchapel can tell when war is going to be declared by the upsurge in bombers flying over the sands from the nearby base. The countryside is beautiful to many; to others, it’s full of indications of death and destruction.
But what really gives these “interruptions” in people’s lives their power is the focus on relationships between human beings. In my favourite story, “The Singing”, a perfect little masterpiece only two pages long, a woman is lying down, quietly breathing. It is only with the final line that we get a glimpse of what has happened: “There were so many things to be done, and no no-one to do them for.”
Loss and absence stalk these stories, whether it’s the teenage boy on a gap year somewhere in a country like Croatia, getting swept further from shore, just as he fails to get nearer the girl he loves, or a woman abandoning her husband even though he’s had a stroke. We’ve had a glimpse of what might have caused this decision in an earlier story, when her vicar husband invites an unnamed American woman to stay indefinitely without asking his wife how she feels about it.
In “Vessel”, a man brings a woman flowers by way of insinuating himself further into her life after the death of her husband, and in “Close”, a lonely woman on holiday in Japan meets a divorced man from Minnesota but can’t use the opportunity to take it further.
Interruptions in their lives – McGregor likes to begin right in the middle of the most innocuous event or thought (“I was wiping the tables”) – that might make a difference.
There’s also a slight dystopian quality to many of these stories about the failure of human interaction – threats about the waters rising add to the sense of potential misunderstandings, with the possibility of the submerged land interfering in basic communication between people. No longer land to work for them, but working against them, as is hinted in “If It Keeps on Raining”.
What dominates, though, is the depiction of ordinary lives but with the ever-extraordinary finality of death and loss always hanging over. But death, of course, is something we never think will happen to us. Because it’s not the sort of thing that happens to people like us.
• This Isn’t The Sort of Thing That Happens To Someone Like You
by Jon McGregor
Bloomsbury, 272pp, £14.99
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