Wednesday 23 October 2019

McGregor's artistry makes the mundane memorable

Short story: The Reservoir Tapes, John McGregor, Fourth Estate, hardback, 179 pages, €11.99

The Reservoir Tapes by Jon McGregor
The Reservoir Tapes by Jon McGregor

Jake Kerridge

Those who pick up a book hoping for a good wallow in tragedy and drama may regard Jon McGregor as the literary equivalent of the person in authority who shoos rubberneckers away from a juicy traffic accident with a "nothing to see here". His much-admired debut novel, If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things (2002), ended with a horrific catastrophe on an unremarkable urban street, but the 300 pages that prefaced it were spent detailing the residents' quotidian routines in the hours beforehand.

McGregor reversed the procedure in his 2017 novel Reservoir 13, which started with a disaster - the disappearance of 13-year-old Becky Shaw while holidaying with her parents in Derbyshire - and then described how the mystery, never solved, affected the lives of the villagers in the years following and, even more resonantly, how it didn't affect them. Becky's parents did their grieving offstage, popping up only occasionally.

That book, longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and winner of the Costa Novel Award, was a huge success. Now McGregor has returned to the same territory with The Reservoir Tapes, a collection of short stories that take place around the time of, or just before, Becky's disappearance. Some feature new characters and others old favourites (they are "Tapes" because the stories were initially written as broadcasts for BBC Radio 4.)

In this book, McGregor focuses on Becky's parents, Charlotte and Joe; in Reservoir 13 we were never even told their names. They remain shadowy figures, however. The first story in the book is a transcript of a journalist interviewing Charlotte, but records only the questions and not the answers, as Charlotte transitions from human being to public figure, somebody to be spoken for and interpreted rather than listened to.

The final story is told from Joe's perspective and furnishes Becky with a hitherto unsuspected motive for running away. Other stories will fuel the theories of those who think Becky was murdered. McGregor is a bit of a tease, and I'm pretty sure that even under extreme interrogation, he would give the same answer that E M Forster gave when asked what really happened in the Marabar Caves: "I don't know."

Once again, the real meat of this book lies in the portrayal of unexceptional moments in the lives of those who are only tangentially touched by the Shaws' tragedy. One story is about a woman who almost embarks on an affair because her husband has stopped paying her attention; another sees a widow targeted by a con artist; a third has a Girl Guides' hike ending in mild calamity. The tale of two men who try to buy a dog, but end up with a sickly alpaca, is an understated comic treat with a slab of icy menace at its heart.

Tragedy is put in its place in McGregor's work, as just one facet of human life, and yet when it is occasionally allowed centre-stage, the previous emphasis on the humdrum serves to make it seem all the more poignant.

John Updike once said that he wanted "to give the mundane its beautiful due", by which he meant that he would grant the dispensation of his rarefied style on dull as well as exciting matters. McGregor, more humbly, seems to be letting the mundane speak for itself; but it is his artistry, artfully concealed, that makes it memorable.

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