shining the spotlight on short story collections
“Soon it will rain. And people won’t understand. They’ll just put on their hats and coats, open their umbrellas, and rush out into the middle of whatever it is they need to do. Their busy days. Their successful and important lives.”
Jon McGregor’s writing isn’t just about being present – in a place or a moment – it is present. That’s true even when the events written about are rooted in the past. Despite the book’s title, many of the things that happen in these short stories could, so easily, happen to any one of us but thankfully most of them don’t…most of the time. Yet these stories capture the exact times at which they do occur and they say, “Sometimes it happens like this.”
There’s an intensity to McGregor’s prose, even when discussing everyday things, and a poetic rhythm. In She Was Looking For This Coat a woman describes an item of lost property with a strength that makes you feel her father might still be inside that garment and missing too. In other stories there is less a sense of urgency and more of a sensation of slowing down to stillness to take time over the words. Many of the stories are very short, allusive and yet powerful despite their length. Each moment in them has its own precise import. I found myself wanting to go back and savour them again and again.
The book is illustrated with maps, like woodcuts, of places in the Lincolnshire Fenland. Their glorious names spill through these stories like poetry, most stories being set in an identified place. The book even ends with a piece that appears to be a carefully ordered index of place names from the area, revealing the themes, rhythms, repetitions and exceptions of their naming.
In many of these stories the wide, flat landscape and places within it imbue important atmosphere to the setting. For example, in The Airshow the expanse of an airfield is an evocative backdrop to the losses of a nation as well as those of a single family. In The Cleaning an estranged couple enter a flooded house and “He had no idea where to begin. So much had been ruined.” It becomes obvious as they progress through the destruction that his wife is unaware that both the house and the relationship are beyond salvaging. “She had no idea.” But there are also a few other, more exotic landscapes to add variety, such as Japan, a warm sunny beach and an imagined New York.
The endings of these stories are often ambiguous rather than clearly defined denouements. In We Wave And Call it is not clear whether a swimmer will reach his destination. In Wires the danger of a road incident is replaced with another, somewhat uncertain, threat. In most cases this leaves the story open to the sky in an intriguing way. In just a few instances, such as What Happened To Mr Davison, the ultimate result for me was to produce a sense of frustration that a scenario had been so lovingly set up and then never resolved.
This may not be the book for those who are annoyed by occasional bursts of unconventional typography and experimental approaches to storytelling. The first two stories in the collection set the scene for this. The omission of quotation marks for speech in the opening story is not particularly unusual in modern writing but it still has a tendency to announce its presence and the effect here is to internalise the dialogue as a recollection. In the second story, In Winter The Sky, there are unusual touches, such as the inclusion of poetry and explicitly marked revisions throughout the text. I chose to read the story and will return to the poems by-and-by. Perhaps a braver reader would manage to experience both in parallel. The story Supplementary Notes is rendered entirely in small print, which is a pain for a reader with forty-something-plus failing eyesight, but it is fully justified by the plot and the chilling realisation of the world it depicts saves the day and stops me being irritated. By contrast, although Remains almost reads like a Google News search for the word, the careful ordering and rhythm produces something rather lyrical and teases meaning and pathos out of the words and their repetitions.
These more experimental works are to be admired for their inventiveness and offer variety to the collection but the majority of the stories are not tricksy or showy for the sake of show. They are realist, chronological tellings of events that are sometimes slight, sometimes momentous. Sometimes it is impossible to determine precisely what is happening and this makes their magic all the more mysterious.
Read a story from this collection on The Guardian
About the reviewer: It happens that Pauline Masurel is someone who writes fiction. When this happens – if it happens at all – they are the sort of fictions that are short. Sometimes they are even shorter than this. They could happen to you at www.unfurling.net