Dying alone, un-noticed and un-cared for is, I guess, a common fear – and that is the opening of Jon McGregor’s third novel. Thereafter, the novel takes us on an unrelentingly bleak trip through addictions, homelessness, squalor and human inadequacies as they try but surely fail to deal with the world around them, and as Robert’s story and the desire to establish the reason (or reasons) for his death unfolds in parallel to the journey his body takes to mortuary, the pathologist’s slab and finally to the crematory fire.
Robert’s journey is accompanied by a somewhat ethereal chorus of observers drawn from the disenfranchised among us and – as with the nature of addiction – the telling of the fragments of his life and death is made by witnesses who may well not be reliable, as well as being loose, episodic and fractured. Indeed, the novel appears frequently to be little more than fragments from the writer’s notebook.
At its best – for example, in a memorable passage focusing on Afghanistan – the novel succeeds brilliantly. Its scenes of drug use and the work of both pathologist and coroner are well-observed and researched, the latter both delivering a neat, precise counterpoint to the disjointed, unfocused remainder (as well as a welcome element of light). A few targets – people like Robert getting better care in their death than they do in their life, the failures of the rehabilitation industry and the ex-soldier’s lament of the lack of desire for Queen and country to serve him as much as he had served them – are squarely hit. The political tone of the novel is clear and, with the cuts this government is intent on making to public services, it is also worryingly, chillingly prophetic. Unfortunately, the successes are rare. I want the novel to succeed – McGregor is courageously taking immense risks with language and form in this novel and that is laudable – but ultimately novels work best when they engage the reader and McGregor makes few concessions in this direction. The casual reader is unlikely to make it much beyond a particularly difficult and over-long (and deliberately unsettling) second section. There is a good story here and a powerful message that needs to emerge, but it remains rather too deeply buried.
Are successful novels only those which are ‘popular’? No – of course not, but novels must engage their audience if writers are to get their ideas across and I suspect that this one is mired too heavily in troublesome punctuation and a writing style based on streams of (barely)consciousness to be ‘popular’. A creditable effort – but ‘less is more’ is more than just a minimalist touchstone.