A land overlooked

This Isn’t the Sort of Thing That Happens to Someone Like You, by Jon McGregor, Bloomsbury, RRP£14.99, 272 pages

You could spend some time wondering how to categorise Jon McGregor’s new book. Is it a collection of stories? One story is no longer than a two-sentence joke – “Chinese restaurants, launderettes, baked potato vans. These are a few of my favourite extractor-fans.” Another is a government document from a future after a European war. Must we rummage around for new definitions of fiction? To do so would be to limit the pleasure for most readers of this evocation of the fenlands and towns of Lincolnshire, a place apart, the sky criss-crossed by military aircraft and the sounds of practice bombing. A flat landscape held in the moments just before it might, or might not, rain.

For the most part, something is going to happen or has already taken place: we are in the present, intensely felt. Stories stop abruptly or peter out before we understand what is going on. Facts are in short supply. The cumulative effect is a kind of novel about a place and its inhabitants, told through fragments and recurring nameless characters. Nothing happens, as Amazon reviewers are wont to write, apart from in every sentence. Some petty criminals and labourers work and chat on the periphery of a wedding. A mysterious American woman is taken in by a vicar, against the instincts of his wife; she claims she has come to England for medical treatment but won’t state what is wrong with her. A man’s dislike of eggs, and the fear that he will find a boiled foetus inside when he slices off the top, becomes the agent that ends his marriage. A boy borrows his father’s car and accidentally kills someone.

Each story is set in a named eastern place or is about someone from that place in foreign climes. Many of those places are close to air force bases. The inhabitants seem to carry the silences of their hometowns with them when they leave, such as Patricia, the school secretary from Gainsborough in Lincolnshire, who, on a group tour of Japan, meets a divorced American and feels there might have been a moment when they could have begun a holiday romance. But was that moment really there?

McGregor’s characters are often thinking about themselves doing what it is that they are doing. In “We Wave and Call”, set somewhere on a Mediterranean shore, the swimmer is imagining how he will look back on this near escape from drowning, when actually he really is drowning. This is a great broadening of scope from McGregor’s first novel, If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things (2003), set on the suburban streets of an unnamed English city. If anything, the poetic intensity has deepened as he widens the range of his characters to encompass a whole place, a kind of country. The lyrical is not present in “fine writing” but in the evocation of the feeling on your face of damp air and the sight of abandoned telephone boxes, soggy fields and the conical chimneys of power stations. Lincolnshire, without the romance, the self-mythologising of Cornwall or Scotland, seems like Britain’s Badlands, the forgotten emptiness and unremarkable lives.

Some stories commence with linocuts of maps, showing the general wateriness of the region. The book ends with a list of place names, grouped by suffixes – the “by”s, the “gate”s, the “field”s, the “ton”s and the “well”s. In these place names is a history of England, and a topography. They merit reading aloud, as if they were poetry, which in a way they are, or have become by the time you reach the final pages.

Short stories have long been out of fashion in Britain, where there are so few magazines that publish them – unlike the US, which has for nearly a century hosted them on the pages of The New Yorker. They have been almost eliminated from BBC Radio 4 (hard to write not just to length, but to the second) and collections have never been eligible for the Man Booker Prize. Publishers regard delivery of a collection instead of a novel with resigned disappointment – they are said not to sell.

Now, however, short stories seem to be making a comeback. Perhaps the fragmenting of attention spans by the internet makes us more receptive to shorter fiction, instead of the long certainties of the fully fleshed traditional novel. Stories may, too, be the place where the readers will accept experimentation, notoriously unwelcome in the novel itself.

The phrase “this isn’t the sort of thing that happens to you” is typical of the sort of clichés that emerge from vox-pop TV interviews in the aftermath of an arrest or a disaster; you could substitute the word “here” for “you”, for this is also a book about unremarkable places, overlooked and uncommemorated. McGregor is the contemporary master of lives lived in what the Irish call a small way, and the belief, which is literature’s, that we are all poetic.

Linda Grant is author of ‘We Had It So Good’ (Virago)

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