My first outing with John McGregor was not a success. Despite the almost universal praise for If Noone Speaks of Remarkable Things, I stopped listening to the audio book somewhere in the middle of CD2. It was slow and sleep-inducing – never good, but potentially lethal when you’re driving. Besides that I really didn’t like the omniscient narrator looking down and describing everyday scenes in minute detail. It felt artificial. Normally that would be it for an author but I had to get my hands on the first novel in the UK to be published in bendyback format. Yes, it is lovely. Thus McGregor got his second chance.
Imagine then my disappointment on encountering the same narrative device on page one, paragraph 4 of McGregor’s latest. An inauspicious beginning. Thankfully, however, the power of the first sentence and the curiosity it awoke in me kept me reading.
They break down the door at the end of December and carry the body away.
Whose body? What has happened to it? The mystery is slowly unfolded in the course of 5 meandering chapters, switching backwards and forwards in time, as we follow the miserable lives of the dead man, Robert, and his fellow substance abusers on their inexorable downward spirals.
It’s dark. It’s powerful and it’s compulsive. Full of detail that I feel no delight in knowing but I simply could not look away. Successful as the writing may be, I’m not thanking McGregor for making me feel the desperate need of an heroin addict, trawling the town looking for a supplier, every nerve in his body screaming as he waits for the delivery, every sinew on edge while he searches for a vein healthy enough to accept the needle.
The title is taken from one of the high points of the novel. Back in the 80’s when Steve was still a functioning human being on a mercy mission in Bosnia.
Got to the bit where the policeman shut the doors of the truck again, and gave them back their passports, and said, So now, where you want to go? ….
So we told him the name of the town again … and this policeman just shook his head. Just like that. Looked off down the valley and shook his head. ….
No. You do not go. There is nothing for you there. There, even the dogs are dead.
There’s your warning – there’s no redemption in the pages of this book. Plenty of repetition – the life of a junkie is all about habit in ever-decreasing circles. Depressing in blocks capitals but peppered with humour of the blackest hue.
The man hours that go into living like this. Takes some dedication, takes some ****ing what, commitment. (My asterisks.)
As a result, I’d categorise Even the Dogs along with Jude The Obscure. Books so depressing they cheer you up. By comparison your own disasters aren’t so bad. It could definitely be worse.
For that perverse reason, I see myself revisiting this book. Perhaps on a second visit, I may appreciate the stylistic tricks that irritated on first reading such as the chapter comprised entirely of incomplete paragraphs. It simply begs the pun – style over substance. Like that composite omnisicient narrator – an irritation at first, until the identity becomes clear resulting in an exponential increase of emotional resonance.
While there’s no hope in the novel, there may yet be hope for McGregor and me.