Jon McGregor’s Pagan Omniscience

I’ve spent part of this year reading through the work of Jon McGregor, whose latest novel, Reservoir 13, has met with a lot of acclaim here in Britain. It has even become one of those rare beasts longlisted or shortlisted for the more conservative literary prizes (the Booker, the Costa) as well as the Goldsmiths Prize for “innovative fiction.” Now, on the occasion of its publication in America, James Wood has offered an especially perceptive take on the new book in the context of McGregor’s body of work.

“McGregor’s first novel received a lot of excited attention,” writes Wood,

\but in comparison with his later work it seems showy; it glistens with anxious youthful effort. The sentences are self-consciously lyrical, but not quite brilliant enough to earn their inflation. There are moments of subtlety, but they have to be dug out of the style. And the book is uneasily poised on the lip of a conceit: the street, we learn, is being described just before a climactic and terrible moment, withheld until the end of the book.

That was exactly my impression when I read it over the summer. Thankfully, McGregor has improved with age, and Reservoir 13 is his best work to date, establishing certain continuities with his earlier novels even as it breaks with them in its effects.

“Again,” writes Wood,

we are somewhere in the North [of England], in an unnamed place. Again, he omnisciently darts in and out of his characters’ lives, swerving away and then returning a few pages later, using this repetitive construction to build his gradual collage. And, again, he has written a novel with a quiet but insistently demanding, even experimental form. The word “collage” implies something static and finally fixed, but the beauty of Reservoir 13 is in fact rhythmic, musical, ceaselessly contrapuntal. … There are no conventional scenes, because nothing is lingered on long enough to develop singly. There is little direct dialogue. There are no moments set aside for privileged epiphany or revelation. …

Of course, “things happen.” … But because the novel is not centered on any single character or set of characters, it enacts a radical diffusion of emphasis. Our attention is directed not toward singular moments or events but toward the length of a life, and toward the ways in which each life interacts with someone else’s. Reservoir 13 is a novel without a protagonist but filled with people. … And there is… a further diffusion — these human lives are seen in counterpoint to natural life, the different life rhythms pushed into the same time signature.

The result, for Wood, is that “life is seen here as somehow beyond moral accounting, another remarkable achievement of the book’s slow, riverine form, and another subtle unravelling of what we think of as the conventional project of the novel.” For me, it’s an entire book that is reminiscent of some of my favourite parts of other novels — Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, Kathryn Davis’ The Thin Place, Saša Stanišić’s Before the Feast — in which human life is observed from “a position of pagan omniscience, looked at in the way we might look at nature,” and seen as on equal footing with the animal world.

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