These are the invisible people. The homeless, the junkies, the anonymous. For most of us, they’re indistinct—people we might see on the street as we go about our daily business. But they are individuals with stories, stories that they share with each other and stories known only to them. In his new novel, Even the Dogs, Jon McGregor takes us into their world and gives us glimpses of their stories.
This short novel opens with a dead body being carried out of a derelict flat. The body is that of Robert, an alcoholic who has lived in squalor for years, visited only by the junkies who brought him food in exchange for a place to gather to share their “gear.” We don’t initially know how he died, but over the course of the book we learn about the events leading up to his death and about the lives of those who knew him.
Even the Dogs doesn’t really have a plot to speak of. The closest thing to a narrative is the framing story of the body being taken to the morgue, examined, and later disposed of. Most of the book consists of short vignettes showing the past and present lives of the people who knew Robert. We see Danny wandering the streets after finding Robert’s body, trying to decide whether to call the police or to find Robert’s daughter Laura or to get the fix he craves. We see Laura visiting her father for the first time since her mother took her away from him. We see Steve driving a truck full of children’s toys into Bosnia. And we see Heather, delirious and high on crack, forcing Ben onto her, teasing him with a pipe so that he’ll take her body. We see an unnamed homeless man getting his wormy feet cleaned by a chirpodist working at a day shelter. We see the banal, the tragic, the ugly—but mostly we just see.
McGregor uses a fragmented, stream-of-consciousness style to share his characters’ lives. The sentences often cut off in the middle, and the narrative shoots back and forth in time. This kind of writing is not usually my favorite, but I think it has grown on me over the years, and it works very well here. The discursive, sometimes chaotic flow of the narrative matches the characters’ lives. And although the style takes a bit of getting used to, I never found it very hard to understand.
One element that I would have found puzzling, had it not been (over)explained on the back cover, was the use of first person plural throughout the book—“we” are watching the body being removing from the house, “we” draw in closer, “we” can hear the voices, and so on. It’s an unusual choice, and it creates an intimacy that a more typical third-person point of view might not provide. We are actually there, we are with the narrator—in a sense, we are the narrator. But even as we’re there, we’re outside, observing, not participating, only occasionally interacting. And the few moments of interaction are the real puzzle. These moments were jarring to me, and I think the novel would have been better off not trying to employ any narrative tricks of this type.
Overall, however, I am glad I read Even the Dogs. I’m glad for the opportunity to see—to really see—these invisible people. McGregor doesn’t flinch, he doesn’t glamorize, but he also doesn’t condemn. It’s an ugly, ugly picture, but it illustrates the importance of looking with clear eyes.
McGregor has, incidentally, twice been long-listed for the Booker prize, but this is the first of his novels that I’ve read. In fact, I’d never heard of him before I saw this book being offered in the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. If anyone else has read his previous books, I’d be interested in hearing what you thought.