by Jon McGregor
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.