Loads of Learned Lumber

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Jon McGregor, _If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things_

"BOOKER-NOMINATED," ANNOUNCES the jacket. What does that mean, though? Do British publishers nominate their own books for the Booker, as publishers here do for the Pulitzer? Now, if it said "Short-listed for the Booker Prize," that would be another thing altogether. But "nominated"? Hmm.

But this novel seems Booker-oriented anyway, in that it concerns the long tail of consequences of a terrible event in the past, the exact nature of which the novel is structured to withhold until quite near the end (see earlier entry on Anne Enright's _The Gathering_).

The narrative is formally interesting, though. Chapters describing the ordinary doings of the inhabitants of an ordinary residential street in an unnamed English city on the day that the terrible event occurred alternate with chapters from the point of view of one of the witnesses of the event, a young woman, three years later, when she has discovered she is pregnant and has to to figure who to tell and how, how she will manage, and so on.

The terrible event -- a car hits and kills a boy, one of a set of twins, who is playing in the street -- is so elaborately foreshadowed that it is not much of a surprise, but that death turns out to carry as a near-immediate consequence the death of a quiet, lonely young man who also lives on the street, a death that goes unnoticed for days. This young man was silently and desperately in love with the young woman who three years later is dealing with her surprise pregnancy -- a love she knows nothing of until, in the midst of her quandary over her preganancy, she meets Michael, the twin of the young man, who eventually tells her the whole story...

...well, it sounds a bit hokey when one lays it out like that. What the novel did with time, coincidence, pattern, and delayed revelations was highly likeable, really.

The near-total exclusion of names was peculiarly effective, for some reason -- Michael is named, and we learn the name of the boy who is killed wehn he dies, but everyone else is anonymous, identified only by some distinctive trait, "the man with the ruined hands," "the tall girl with the glitter round her eyes." The inverted indentation trick in the young woman's chapters (first line flush left, subsequent lines of the same sentence indented a quarter-inch, as in Walt Whitman poems) seemed gimmicky at first but somehow shed a bit of dignity on her humiliating circumstances.

The conditional clause that serves as the title is on p. 239 completed by the man with the ruined hands, speaking to his daughter: "He says, if nobody speaks of remarkable things, how can they be called remarkable?" He is speaking of noticing, paying attention to, heeding the astonishing things always around us, even as we live our ordinary lives in ordinary circumstances, and he clues us in that the novel participates in the rich realist tradition of finding the remarkable in the supposedly unremarkable. Fair enough, then. Better than some Booker winners I could name, in fact.

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