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Man Booker Prize 2002

Longlist

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If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things
Jon McGregor


Susan Harper

Jon McGregor's ambition in If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things is admirable but over-reaching.

Woven together are two strands of storytelling in the past and present. One pieces together the individual experiences of residents on a late summer day in a street, which climaxes in a grave accident. A parallel story, narrated a year later, charts how one of the street's former residents deals with her unexpected pregnancy and tries to unravel the facts of the day of the accident.

With touching romantic intentions, McGregor seeks to convey the richness and depth of human experiences within the parameters of a set time. He aims for a 360-degree view of the residents' lives, weaving through their thoughts, intuitions, secret pains and loves, unseen gestures and unspoken words.

It is a novel of layered snatches of descriptions - an awkward boy who collects others' discarded rubbish, a widowed father with burn-scarred hands and a fragile girl who sees fairies. These characters' individual stories are pieced together to form an interesting collage of diverse experiences that even a supposedly unremarkable street can harbour. One is, at times, carried along by McGregor's sincere enthusiasm and at its best the narrative has a simple natural fluidity that compliments the story and the writer's purpose. However, despite his lyrical talent, McGregor's narrative sits uncomfortably for the first few chapters of the book and his expression proves inconsistent.

McGregor sets himself quite a challenge; a cinematic style in literature is difficult to approach without being pretentious. In attempting to reveal the remarkable in the apparently mundane, the novel tilts towards self-absorbed melodrama, particularly in charting the progression of the protagonists' pregnancy- she is often clutching her swollen belly or analysing her condition:

'Another of the leaflets had a section on physical effects. I spent a long time thinking about them all, wondering which ones I'd get, wondering how well I'd cope. I thought about backache, nausea, indigestion, faintness. I thought about waking in the night with a screaming pain, clutching at the cover with clawed hands. I thought about banging my fists against my head to distract myself from it.'

In dealing with an ostensibly clichéd, adolescent theme ('if nobody speaks of remarkable things, how can they be called remarkable?') McGregor is susceptible to pitfalls such as cringing earnestness. He chooses a lilting, wistful, humourless style of narrative which is at times unnecessarily distant and removed (for example, many characters are referred to through descriptions of their hair) and obtusely politically correct, as none of the residents are explicitly described as being from ethnic minorities.

Occasional hackneyed metaphors and over-reaching contrived poeticism form chinks in the narrative's flow. The reader is often uncomfortably aware of the transparency of McGregor's poetic aspirations, and as one reads the first few chapters it is easy to imagine McGregor desperately reaching for some understated but imaginative imagery:

'People outstretched in the park, pinned to the ground like collected butterflies.'

And,

'He breathes heavily as his hands struggle up to the high cupboards, fluttering like the wings of a caged bird.'

Unfortunately McGregor has not fully developed the seemingly effortless turn of expression needed to write unaffected poetic prose, and the result instead is awkward and self-conscious. It is a shame that McGregor felt the need to pepper his writing with unnecessary imagery, as in later parts of the book a cleaner, less adulterated style emerges and reads more naturally. The overall result, although engaging, seems to resemble an English student's creative writing assignment.

 

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