This Isn't the Sort of
Thing that BOOM
This Isn’t the Sort of Thing That Happens to Someone Like You
by Jon McGregor
Review by Patrick McGinty
“One time I was a senior officer on the pier and a Turkish officer came up to me in a frightful rage because one of our sailors had been most insulting to him. So I told him the fellow would be sent on ship and be most severely punished. I asked him to point him out. So he pointed out a gunner’s mate, most inoffensive chap. Said he’d been most frightfully and repeatedly insulting; talking to me through an interpreter. I couldn’t imagine how the gunner’s mate knew enough Turkish to be insulting.”
—“On the Quai at Smyrna,” Ernest Hemingway
“They told him he wasn’t allowed on the school premises. They didn’t even use the word allowed to start off with, they just said they thought it would be better if he didn’t come in. Better for everyone concerned is what they said. Only that didn’t even feel like an everyone which included him. He wasn’t really bothered what they thought, he said, he just wanted to come in and see his daughter. That’s then they actually stepped in his way and said he literally wasn’t allowed on the premises. For Christ’s sakes, this was the school nativity.”
—“Keeping Watch Over the Sheep,” Jon McGregor
ou’re going to see a Jon McGregor book on a shelf soon. Near the front of the store, most likely. It might be one of his three novels. It might be his recently published first collection of short fiction: This Isn’t the Sort of Thing That Happens to Someone Like You. Whichever book it is, it’ll have a sticker or tag or promotional card of some sort. This is what happens when you win the International Impac Dublin Literary Award and, along with it, 100,000 euro. The Brit won for his novel Even the Dogs, beating 147 books published in the last two years. The new stickers might simply say “BOOM” with eighteen o’s, which is what McGregor tweeted shortly after winning the prize.
Except prize stickers encourage a reader to judge by the cover, and it is my recommendation that you judge his latest collection of thirty stories from their first lines. From “Wires”: “It was a sugarbeet, presumably, since that was a sugarbeet lorry in front of her and this thing turning in the air at something like sixty miles an hour had just fallen off it.” The sugarbeet breaks the windshield, but the story’s real conflict is set into motion by the men who pull over to help. More first lines: “He was the first boy in his class to get pubic hair.” “On the long drive back from the funeral, they took the grandfather to see the airfield where he’d been stationed during the war.” “She threw her pint glass across the garden and told him to just shut up.” “She took the tulips from his hands.”
Conflicts are quickly established in these first lines, yet notice the reliance on pronouns. In the five story starts, we can assume only that the boy is pubertal, that the grandfather is a veteran, and that the woman staring down a sugarbeet is old enough to drive. In some cases we can hardly identify which character among the group is the traditional protagonist. Something odd is afoot with the characters right from the outset, both in McGregor’s arms-length treatment of them and in their unusual predicaments.
These jarring first lines became jarring first paragraphs, in which something masterful takes place. But first: a word about the formal hijinks in the collection, which are featured prominently in a third or so of the stories. I’m not one to criticize a collection’s most experimental stories simply for being experimental. The wife’s edited poem published across the page from the husband’s narration in “In Winter The Sky” is a moving and even necessary counterpoint, a reminder of how formal experimentation can loosen and expand a narrative.
However, more often than not, the formal experimentation strangles what could be a brisk and grisly McGregor story. Whereas the best selections demonstrate his enormous skill at freezing strange moments (a sugarbeet flying toward a windshield), the tricksy ones require formal resuscitation of a mundane story. “Supplementary Notes To The Testimony of Appellants B&E” is told entirely through footnotes, some as short and pithy as “Not proven” and “Unconfirmed.” His best stories leave much unconfirmed—outcomes, histories, character names—and drawing attention to this practice feels like a twice-told joke. The fourth footnote in “The Last Ditch” tells us that “Names and locations have been redacted throughout this recovered document,” as though we couldn’t suss out the intent of the black blobs ourselves. McGregor’s occasional insistence on plausibility, on making prose slum in the print we’d all be glossing over otherwise, does not, as Footnote 15 pleads, compel us to “Note this entire section with High Concern.”
I bring up the few formal shortcomings because they strangle what are otherwise stories as sparse, clean, and biting as anything going. Locked-in first lines, snowballing conflicts, just enough brushstrokes of character: you can compare him to Hemingway without being glib. Especially if you compare McGregor’s first story collection to Hemingway’s In Our Time. Whereas Hemingway’s later, more anthologized works (“Hills Like White Elephants,” “Snows of Kilimanjaro,” “A Clean Well Lighted Place”) dive in early with straight dialogue and let the tape run, the young Hemingway shares with McGregor a love and control of reported dialogue. The quoted sections above, both the beginning of short stories, share a technical and tonal quality that is driven by dialogue-as-prose. We don’t know what Hemingway and McGregor characters eat for breakfast or what they wear. We don’t know many of the domestic, detail-oriented things we’ve come to expect from contemporary short fiction. What we do know is that the characters are entangled. They may well face severe punishments for overstepping their bounds.
And yet when the climactic action or punishment does come, it is often just as perfunctory as the dialogue that’s been reported to us. The end of “On the Quai at Smyrna” commences thusly: “When they evacuated they had all their baggage animals they couldn’t take off with them so they just broke their forelegs and dumped them into the shallow water. All those mules with their forelegs broken pushed over into the shallow water.”
As for the McGregor: “Later, once the police had got the handcuffs on and were picking him up off the ground, he noticed that someone had opened the hall curtains, and he thought he could see Rachel standing on the edge of the stage wearing what must have been a sheep costume.”So they just broke their forelegs. Once the police had got the handcuffs on. We began right in the thickets of a “situation”, and already we’re being picked up off the ground. Reported dialogue and reported climaxes work for McGregor and Hemingway because they share a belief, I think. Conflict does not exist between people. It exists within people. Why am I at a harbor filled with broken animals and “babies dead six days?” Why am I at my daughter’s nativity rehearsal when I am banned? What am I doing here? The characters are stuck, and bad things keep happening. One right after the other. Look out. Boom.
Patrick McGinty's fiction has appeared, most recently, in ZYZZYVA and The Portland Review.