Book Review: If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, by Jon McGregor


If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things
by Jon McGregor
Bloomsbury
2002
275 pages

This is one of the most oddly compelling books I have ever read.

This is one of those books that you read for the beauty of language, for the privilege of watching a master of details at work (for that is what Jon McGregor is in this 2002 Booker Prize nominated debut novel of his). No detail – not a single one – escapes McGregor’s keen eye.

Except … well, there’s the small matter of the lack of punctuation (quotation marks in the dialogue) and the naming of his characters.  The lack of punctuation and proper nouns is very much intentional, make no mistake about that, but in my experience it makes for a rough read.  I don’t like novels where I feel like I need a spreadsheet to keep track of events and characters, but that’s what I felt like this required of me as a reader.  

The characters are all residents of a quiet street in England and only identified as “the young girl from number nineteen, the sister of the twins” or “in the kitchen of number seventeen the young man with the creased and sweaty white shirt puts a kettle on to boil.” There are just too many characters for my addled brain to keep straight without any names and after awhile this became tedious. Maybe this effect would have worked better in a short story, or perhaps a novella, or just with less people. 

At the beginning of the story, the reader learns that there is some kind of tragedy that occurs during this one particular day in which the residents all go about their lives without interacting with each other.

That’s the symbolism behind this whole business of not naming the characters, you see; it’s not just literary whimsy, but rather McGregor’s way of showing how little we know about the people in our midst while remaining interconnected to them (even though we don’t realize that, either).  Omitting the names is irksome, but  downright essential to the novel’s theme and message.

“And after we talked some more we walked back through the park and across town to an art gallery.

There was a special exhibition on, it was only one piece of work but we were there for an hour, looking and and looking and telling each other about it in hushed awestruck voices.

It was in one room, a large room with long skylights, and we stood by the doorway and looked in at it, at them, looking over them, thousands and thousands of six-inch red clay figures, as roughly made as playschool plasticine men, a pair of finger-sized sockets for eyes, heads tilted up from formless bodies.

Each one almost identical, each one unique.

We knelt there, looking at them looking up at us, the thousands of them, saying I wonder how long and I wonder if they all and I wonder what.

A small boy came running up behind us , shouting and then suddenly stilled into quietness, he said it’s like being on a stage.

I wanted to steal one, I wanted to put it on my bedside table and wake up to see it smiling kindly beside me, but Michael said it wasn’t fair, he wouldn’t let me, he said it might get lonely.

I wanted to count them, give them all names, make up stories for each of them, but it seemed impossible to even begin.

And so we just knelt there without talking, looking at them looking at us, unblinking, expressionless.” (pg. 230-231)

I liked the premise of this book, which started off strong for me in the beginning but dragged in the middle – almost to the point of me abandoning this. It picks up toward the very end.  It supposedly takes place over the course of a day, but I had a hard time knowing what time it was (there’s a lot of sleeping and drinking tea) and the pacing was such that it seemed much longer than a day.  The chronology is a little hard to follow, because McGregor weaves in the backstory of these nameless characters throughout.  It’s a little reminiscent of Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. 

Even though I found this to be a tough, confusing read, I commend Jon McGregor for taking such a bold risk as a first-time author. Most authors would have stayed on the safe path (and many continue to, years after publishing their first book) but McGregor didn’t – which might have been a reason why If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things caught the attention of the Booker Prize nomination committee. 

“He says my daughter, and all the love he has is wrapped up in the tone of his voice when he says those two words, he says my daughter you must always look with both of your eyes and listen with both of your ears. He says this is a very big world and there are many many things you could miss if you are not careful. He says there are remarkable things all the time, right in front of us, but our eyes have like the clouds over the sun and our lives are paler and poorer if we do not see them for what they are.

He says if nobody speaks of remarkable things, how can they be called remarkable?

He looks at her and knows she doesn’t understand , he doesn’t think she’ll even remember it to understand when she is older. But he tells her these things all the same, it is good to say them aloud, they are things people do not think and he wants to place them into the air.

Angels, he says, and she leans forward as if she is expecting him to pass on a secret.  I do not know about angels, he says, perhaps there are many, perhaps they are here now he says, and she looks around and stands closer to him and he smiles. But there are people too he says, everywhere there are people and I think it is easier to hold hands with people than it is with angels, yes?”  (pg. 239-240).

What Others Thought:

Jon McGregor’s website includes several reviews, including some not-so-favorable ones (the first time I have ever seen that on an author’s site!)

BookPage

copyright 2010, Melissa (Betty and Boo’s Mommy, The Betty and Boo Chronicles) If you are reading this on a blog or website other than The Betty and Boo Chronicles or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.

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3 thoughts on “Book Review: If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, by Jon McGregor

  1. Trisha

    Wow. I really give him credit for having negative reviews on his own site. That’s chutzpah right there. This sounds like a rather unique reading experience so I may have to give a whirl!

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