Category Archives: Jon McGregor

Reading With Authors #7: Even The Dogs – Jon McGregor; With Isabel Ashdown

  

Hello Isabel, welcome to the penultimate ‘Reading with Authors’ blog. After being in the snowy Arctic last week I thought we might settle in South Manchester again, though I apologise as you have driven quite a way and we seem to be having thunderstorms…

Please, don’t apologise – I’ve had quite a hectic week, and the change of scene will do me good.  It’s a bit wet and murky out there – shall I leave my wellies by the door?

Oh yes please do if you don’t mind. The fires on so do pop through to the lounge, oh let me take your brolly, what can I get you to drink? What nibbles would you like?

I do love a real fire.  I hope you don’t mind, I’ve brought Charlie-dog with me.  He won’t be any bother; he’ll just curl up by the hearth and sigh every now and then.  For me?  I think a nice little tawny port would be rather good – perhaps a few pistachios to nibble on as we chat . . . And if it’s not too cheeky, I don’t suppose you could rustle up a sausage for Charlie?

Oh Charlie has made himself at home straight away, what a cutie, and rather appropriate given the title of the book… not the theme I hasten to add. We’ve had sausage, mash and beans for lunch, I happen two have to sausages spare. Are we settled? Right… lets get cracking onto the book, you chose our choice of ‘Even The Dogs’ by Jon McGregor, what made you want to read this, and put it forward for our little book group today?

Well, I was browsing in Waterstone’s one weekend,  going wild and splurging my annual royalty cheque on a small handful of other people’s books . . . when I picked up ‘Even the Dogs’.  The blurb on the back cover sounded compelling: a man’s body found in his ruined flat at Christmas.  It didn’t give away much more than that – and the reviews were good, so I thought I’d give it a try.

I was really glad you chose on of Jon McGregor’s books actually Isabel. I read ‘If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things’ and was left rather non plussed by it, this was pre-blogging, and yet I remember at the time I knew there was some beauty in its silence and its prose, I just didn’t think it was the right book for my reading life right then. Had you read McGregor before and did ‘Even The Dogs’ live up to what you were hoping? Did you like it?

I’m ashamed to say I hadn’t read Jon McGregor’s books before.  Many of my friends had read ‘If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things’ and of course he is highly acclaimed, having been twice long-listed for the Man Booker.  So this was my first experience of reading his work, and I’m glad I did.

I don’t think I can say that I enjoyed ‘Even The Dogs’, but I definitely got a lot from it. I thought it was quite unlike any book on addiction that I have read before. There was no glamorization and the horror of it all wasn’t done for effect, in fact it seemed that Jon McGregor wanted to simply tell the stories of that kind of life, and not just through Robert who I suppose is the main protagonist of the book, as they are. Would you agree?

Like you, I read a fair old bit.  And afterwards I’m usually left with a particular sense of my experience: it was beautiful/ it was funny/ it was sad/ it touched me/ it was uplifting/ it stays in the memory/ (and very occasionally) it was awful . . .  ‘Even the Dogs’ straddled the ‘it touched me’/’it stays in the memory’ categories.  As much as I’m pleased to have read it, I would caution other readers – it’s not an easy book, and I mean that at an emotional level, because the prose really is beautifully spare and effortless.

It’s a rather melancholy book isn’t it?

It is.  But sometimes don’t we need that, to stay connected to those aspects of life that are more difficult to look at, to allow us the joy of the lighter moments?  Light and shade, if you like.

I did worry at the start, I have to admit. The fact we are given the opening line of ‘They break down the door at the end of December and carry the body away’ before a gap so it reads as a statement made me wonder if this was going to be a book that was slightly sensationalized, and would be of an experimental vein. Yet it’s a very simplistic book isn’t it?

In one sense it is.  It tells – in a kind of backwards and forwards narrative – the story of a man who has died alone in his flat.  However, with the over-layered voices of the people who knew him it becomes a complex, multi-stranded, and not always entirely reliable narrative.  In a way, it’s this unreliability of narration that grants it such honesty and draws the reader on through the often disturbing images McGregor paints.

The whole ‘we see’ everything initially rather annoyed me, I was thinking ‘why is it we?’ Yet it worked. In fact the ‘we’ thing does start to make you feel like you have lived through everything that Jon McGregor writes about in ‘Even The Dogs’ doesn’t it? I was wondering who ‘we’ were, I thought we were ghosts of the people of Roberts past? I began to feel as if I was one of the people that had been with Robert and all those around him, a very clever device, and almost made me empathize, though I don’t think that would be the case for everyone would it?

It jarred with me too, at first.  But once I’d read beyond the first fifteen pages, I had shifted into the rhythm of the book and I was with it.  The multiple voices felt to me like the presence of those people (both dead and alive) who’d known him, and at the same time I felt they were almost an echo of the cacophony of Robert’s life – the ceaseless chaotic voices/choices/errors/trauma of the world he inhabited.  I found the experience of reading the book quite stressful, because the tension and pain of that existence is so raw on the page.

I thought the way that we join Robert at the end of his life, when he is just a nameless dead body, and then are rewound through some parts of his life, fast forwarded into others was very affective. And indeed the way we go to moments of his life and are then suddenly following his body to the morgue or his funeral. It gave the book more of an impact I would say, would you?

This was the part of the book I found most difficult, at a personal level.  As I said earlier, the book jacket reveals very little about the story and the circumstances of the dead man’s life and death.  As ‘Even the Dogs’ unfolds we gradually witness Robert’s descent into a world of alcohol and drug addiction, and we start to piece together the events leading up to his final days.  My own father died at the age of 50, from alcohol-related disease and so Robert’s story was poignant, and painful, in a way I couldn’t have anticipated.  I think the harsh reality of the post-discovery scenes were astoundingly candid – and very real.

Do you need anymore of anything by the way?

No, thank you.  These pistachios really are good aren’t they – though I’m having trouble getting into the last few closed ones?  I don’t suppose you’ve got a hammer . . . ?

No, but I do have a chisel. The setting of the book is also hugely important. This kind of derelict and almost uninhabitable world adds to the atmosphere and yet these are all places we have seen, even if just in passing or on the peripheral. I thought it made the book more real, maybe that’s just me?

Let’s face it; we see these people daily, don’t we – the dispossessed, the strangers living at the edges of society?  We recognise them by the stooped posture, the anaesthetised gaze, the two-week stubble.  We’re afraid of them; afraid to make eye contact, afraid of their unpredictability.  But if we could look deep beyond the inebriated mist of their eyes, we might see another life, perhaps several other lives, once lived.  The stripped-back setting of the book brought these figures to the foreground, and forced us to look them in the eye – and that is the genius of the book.

It’s also a book of silence in some ways, this reminded me of ‘If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things’ actually, we miss lots of bits of Roberts life and so are left to fill in those spaces aren’t we?

The writing is so spare; you can almost hear the book breathe.  McGregor gives only tiny glimpses into Robert’s life – in fact what he does give us feels almost like a series of Polaroid photographs – but those images are enough to allow us to join up the dots and feel as if we have some idea about his history.

How would you sum up this book? Is it one you will be recommending to other people, if you haven’t already of course? 

‘Even the Dogs’ is a raw, desolate, powerful story told with compassion and great honesty.  In a way, I think it’s a book everyone should read, at some point in their lives.  But let’s be clear: it’s not a light beach read and it certainly won’t cheer or uplift you as a reader.  However, it is a book that will provoke the human senses and remain with you long after you’ve turned the last page.

What will you be reading after this? I think I might have to turn to ‘Villette’ as so many people have recommended it for Brussels; I also need to catch up with the Tess Gerritsen series I can’t get enough of. You?

I’m just reading a non-fiction book for a change – Russell Brand’s ‘My Booky Wook’.  It’s a great read, lots of belly laughs and poignant insights into the life of that crazy fool Brand.  After that I’ve got two superb looking debuts at the top of my teetering pile: ‘The Somnambulist’ by Essie Fox and ‘Girl Reading’ by Katie Ward.  Well, it’s been an absolute delight to spend an afternoon of booky chat with you Simon.  So kind of you to welcome us into your lovely home – let’s do it again sometime soon.  Oh and Charlie says thanks for the sausage.  Look, he’s smiling.

Some lovely book chatter, nibbles and a smiling dog, what more could you want on a Sunday. I guess we should hand over to anyone else who is popping by, right lets make some more room on the sofa’s…

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Filed under Isabel Ashdown, Jon McGregor, Reading With Authors 2011