by Jon McGregor
Jon McGregor’s debut come to me through just that - a chance encounter while standing in a very long queue for tickets (for friends) at the 2006 Edinburgh International Book Festival. After saving each other’s places through coffee and loo runs, we started chatting about the best books people had read this past year. As a busy PhD student, whose only contact with fiction was the type I’m writing for my thesis, I was anxious to get some recommendations. The chap in front of me was one of the directors for the Edinburgh International Film Festival. He suggested quite a few of the novels that already inhabit my bookcase before arriving (quite literally – he found it on the shelf and brought it over) at McGregor’s offering. Victorious with the tickets, I purchased the novel on my way out.
If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things documents the ordinary, everyday lives of the nameless souls on a nameless city street on a sultry, final day of summer. At first glance, such a topic seems a bit ‘unremarkable.’ However, the novel is filled with dramatic tension due to the way it was crafted. McGregor tells his story by alternating street snapshots with the linear story of just one of these people three years later who is at a turning point in her own life.
At first, I found the novel very challenging to read. Chapters tend to be cliché filled; speech devoid of spacing and punctuation. Once I settled into McGregor’s rhythm, the novel became almost cinematic – a series of flashbacks interspersed in one’s own life story. I wondered if this actually wasn’t a very cleverly crafted screenplay (a la American Beauty) rather than a debut novel.
During interviews, McGregor explains he was interested in the concepts of community and transience. His use of anonymity quickly drew me into the story - this is the street I live on; the characters are people I know. Being from nowhere in particular these days, I quickly identified with his critique of our evolving, supersonic-paced, global society and the lack of connections most people have. One character explains to his daughter, “There are remarkable things all the time, right in front of us, but our eyes have like the clouds over the sun and our lives are paler and poorer if we do not see them for what they are.” (pg 239). McGregor, and I, seem to be pondering if most people experience the small miracles all around them – a sunny afternoon, the rustle of wind through trees, fine details on buildings, facial expressions; the quality not quantity of a life well lived.
At 26, McGregor truly is an “archaeologist of the present.” (pg 153). He challenges the reader both in his avante guard style and layered subject. Given a crossroad in life, what does one do when faced with the unthinkable? More importantly, why does one make the choices they make?
Honestly, although initially being a chore, this novel is actually a quick little read. It packs its punch once the covers are closed. I’ve had it finished for over two weeks now. But, it left me looking at my response to the issues McGregor raises. After a recent realignment in my own life, I would challenge the wider world to take off your wristwatch, breath deeply, and smell the roses. With over 6.7 billion people on this tiny planet, might a rich life have more impact that an over scheduled one?
While I was visiting my family this past holiday season, my youngest brother, P, said he was out of novels. So, while I at the bookshop I made him a promise, “You pick a book, and we’ll read it together!” Accordingly, the next novel is of his choosing - The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova.