Monday, February 14, 2005

If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things

by Jon McGregor

NEILL says:

I don't think I have ever actually thrown a book across the room in exasperation. Who would bother? But I recall coming pretty close with this, the debut novel by Bermuda-born, Norfolk-raised (wow, unlucky break) novelist Jon McGregor. Put it down slightly more forcefully than usual, perhaps; maybe tutted a bit. Anyway, this should not be taken as evidence that this is in any way a bad book; on the contrary, it is a very good book. A very good book indeed. My reaction should merely be taken as further proof, as if it were needed, that I am basically a bit of a fucking mook.

What I had failed to appreciate, you see, was that for some books, just as for formal wear or self-abuse, there is a time and a place. (There is never a time OR a place for self-abuse IN formal wear, of course. That would just be tacky.) My exasperation was caused by trying to use 'If Nobody Speaks...' as my bus-to-work book*. It is not a bus-to-work book, and this elementary mistake caused all sorts of irritation and disappointment. I found myself becoming increasingly frustrated by the book's style; it is packed full of tiny details, all dripping with portentousness, but with nothing ever seeming to actually happen. Furthermore it has a cast of hundreds, almost none of whom seemed to have names, and who I found it impossible to remember, distinguish between or care about. I persevered for about three return trips to work, but eventually events came to a dramatic head with the dropping-forcefully-and-maybe-tutting-a-bit episode I alluded to earlier.
Several months passed before eventually I gave it another chance. This was due to a combination of factors: it's mocking presence on my bookshelf, my own natural stubbornness, and hearing glowing praise of it from someone whose opinion I actually, kind of, you know, respect. A bit. So I gave it another try, this time in the context of a medium-length flight from Estonia, and... well. It just goes to show. Sometimes, even Neill gets it wrong. Maybe. A bit.

So then, 'If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things', by Jon McGregor. I'm a bit worn out after all that preamble, so I'll keep this short. Suffice to say, it's an excellent book. Remarkable, in fact. It rewards your concentrated and sustained attention with an entrancing richness of detail and thematic complexity. It is structurally extremely brave and innovative, and has a humanistic touch and a love for its characters and setting that is really quite moving. It's desperately sad, rather beautiful, and, in the end, genuinely affecting. If it was a song, it'd be by the Delgadoes. And one of their good ones, too.


* The bus-to-work book, since you asked, is about halfway on the literary spectrum between the Toilet Book (short, sharp bursts of reading, light tone, no sustained narrative: classic examples being Richard Herring's 'Talking Cock', or 'TV Go Home' by Charlie Brooker) and the Day Off Work Book (just get your head down and plough through the bastard: classic examples being Albert Camus' 'The Plague', or 'Soul Mountain' by Gao Xingjian... actually that's more of a Month Off Work Book - give it a go next time you have a serious spinal injury or advanced-stage venereal disease). A good bus-to-work book would be 'Carter Beats the Devil' by Glenn David Gould, or anything by Kurt Vonnegut or PG Wodehouse.


  1. It is one of the best books I have read. Ever. You do need a bit of attention span though. In attempting to discern why my wife had hated it so much, I discovered that she had failed to notice the small but perfectly formed narrative developments. Which probably made it a bit like that poem, "The Wasteland".

  2. kookiegoddess12:33 pm

    I would agree that this is a truly great book. I was lucky enough to purchase it with absolutely no expectations, I just liked the cover and it sounded somewhat experimental, and I think that people writing experimental fiction should be given a chance. Thank goodness I did, because this novel is fantastic. I come back to it again and again (usually between books, which is good and bad because I remember how good mcgregor's writing is, and then I realise it's going to be quite tough to find a new book that meets his standard of writing, who captures a mood so powerfully...) and I advise everyone to do the same - rediscover those tiny moments and let yourself be transported away from our dull working lives where we find ourselves needing Bus To Work books.

    BTW I like your categorisation too. I liked "what should I do with my life" by Po Bronson as a toilet book, as an example of a book that can start a mini revolution in your head in just a few minutes.

    Keep reading.

  3. hey nice site you have here!

    Any tips on bloggin ? id like to see your reply to this story :)

    look forward to the next edition

    i have bookmarked you


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