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. Continue reading

The Songlines and the Songlines

It’s been thirty years since Bruce Chatwin published The Songlines. That’s the kind of anniversary that usually elicits either a renewed celebration and revival of a work or a fresh attempt to boot the author up the arse, a la Nicolas Rothwell upon the publication of Chatwin’s letters. Intriguingly, with consummate skill and nuance, Richard Cooke has taken a shot at doing both of those things simultaneously in a long reappraisal of The Songlines for the Australian magazine The Monthly. His essay is a model of what literary criticism can do when combined with cultural and biographical research, a deep sympathy for the writer’s intentions and accomplishments, an awareness for the writer’s shortcomings, and a keen eye for fine-grained textual details. What Cooke has essentially written is a paean to The Songlines as a remarkable, visionary book that was compromised from the outset by the limitations of its author’s vision, and that ended up offering a crippled representation of the very thing it aimed to praise. Continue reading

The Animal Shifts

Paul Kingsnorth, "Beast"Come to a place like this, shut your mouth and your mind and walk on the moor, walk in the wind and the sun, and you will understand soon enough that this world is a great animal, alive and breathing, that we walk through it, we breathe with it, we are its breath, that when we stand on a mountain overcome by the sunset and all that it brings, or fall to our knees in front of an altar in the presence of something greater than ourselves, then we are sensing the animal shift and turn beneath our feet.

Paul Kingsnorth


The Earth is an animal that shakes off its fleas when they dig too deep, bite too hard. It shifts and our cities fall; it sighs and the coasts are overtaken. We really shouldn’t be here at all.

Dave Eggers
A Hologram for the King


Then, as they came to where the trees ended, and blackbirds, before roosting, began to give the alarm in earnest, some first starlings flew out of the sky. Over against the old man and his granddaughter the vast mansion reflected a vast red; sky above paled while to the left it outshone the house, and more starlings crossed. After which these birds came in hundreds, then suddenly by legion, black and blunt against faint rose. They swarmed above the lonely elm, they circled a hundred feet above, until the leader, followed by ever greater numbers, in one broad spiral led the way down and so, as they descended through falling dusk in a soft roar, they made, as they had at dawn, a huge sea shell that stood proud to a moon which, flat sovereign red gold, was already poised full faced to a dying world.

Once the starlings had settled in that tree they one and all burst out singing.

Then there were more, even higher, dots against paler pink, and these, in their turn, began to circle up above, scything the air, and to swoop down through a thickening curve, in the enormous echo of blood, or of the sea, until all was black about that black elm, as the first mass of starlings left while these others settled, and there was a huge volume of singing.

Then a third concourse came out of the west, and, as the first birds swarmed upon the nearest beech, these late comers stooped out of dusk in a crash of air to take that elm, to send the last arrivals out, which trebled the singing.

The old man wondered, as often before, if this were not the greatest sound on earth. Elizabeth stood quiet. The starlings flew around a little and then, as sky faded fast, the moon paled to brilliance, and this moment was over, that singing drooped, then finished, as every bird was home.

Henry Green

The Reverberation of Their Will

I said that my current feelings of powerlessness had changed the way I looked at what happens and why, to the extent that I was beginning to see what other people called fate in the unfolding of events, as though living were merely an act of reading to find out what happens next. That idea — of one’s own life as something that had already been dictated — was strangely seductive, until you realised that it reduced other people to the moral status of characters and camouflaged their capacity to destroy. Yet the illusion of meaning recurred, much as you tried to resist it: like childhood, I said, which we treat as an explanatory text rather than merely as a formative experience of powerlessness. For a long time, I said, I believed that it was only through absolute passivity that you could learn to see what was really there. But my decision to create a disturbance by renovating my house had awoken a different reality, as though I had disturbed a beast sleeping in its lair. I had started to become, in effect, angry. I had started to desire power, because what I now realised was that other people had had it all along, that what I called fate was merely the reverberation of their will, a tale scripted not by some universal storyteller but by people who would elude justice for as long as their actions were met with resignation rather than outrage.

Rachel Cusk

The Seeds of Mills’ Field

Poor Magnus Mills, the marginalised maestro of contemporary British literature. Although his début, The Restraint of Beasts, landed on the Booker Prize longlist almost twenty years ago, his ten subsequent titles haven’t won him much of a mainstream profile. In a sense, that’s no surprise. Mills makes little effort to appeal to a popular readership. His novels, especially, are abstract and opaque, recursive and pedantic, short on story and long on incidents of no apparent significance, and they loudly and proudly disavow any sense of purpose or relevance beyond their own pages. Still, it’s sad that his work has attracted only a niche following. His books are bitterly funny, belonging to that breed of deadpan absurdism and not-quite-fabulism pioneered by Donald Barthelme, and their narratives are supremely structured around elaborate schemes of concealments and revelations.

If you’re one of the many who haven’t yet jumped aboard the bandwagon, Mills’ latest novel, The Field of the Cloth of Gold, might entice you to make the leap. It contains a good dose of everything that makes Mills worth reading, and in fact it not only embraces the tendencies that colour his backlist but also brings them to a sort of apotheosis. Longtime fans may the book a little irritating, perhaps a compendium of retreads of some of Mills’ greatest hits, but for newcomers it will open up the perfect port of entry to his entire body of work and to the array of bizarre scenarios he has spent his career creating. Continue reading

The Boys Who Wouldn’t Grow Up (3)

Continued from the previous post.

Seamus Heaney, "New Selected Poems 1966-1987"When placed in the company of Betjeman and Larkin, Heaney joins the conversation from a bit of a distance. Love is rarely a subject he sees fit for exploration. The embarrassments and frustrations of lust are not the concerns of his best-known work. More celebrated are poems like ‘Mid-Term Break’ (1966) and ‘Limbo’ (1972), both of which punctuate the quietude of life in rural Ireland with shocking irruptions of death. More compelling are the haunting ‘Follower’ (1966) and ‘District and Circle’ (2006), both of which detail Heaney’s disquieting relationship with his father. More eloquent are Heaney’s sporadic, almost impulsive disclosures of his mystical sentiments — disclosures like those made in section xxii of ‘Settings’ (1991) or in the oblique rhetorical question that appears as a non sequitur between two descriptions of a badger in ‘Badgers’ (1979): “How perilous is it to choose / not to love the life we’re shown?” Continue reading