Ever since reading Even the Dogs, I’ve thought that Jon McGregor would be an excellent short story writer. He has a gift for homing in on details that make seemingly trivial moments pregnant with meaning. Plus, his style is of the type that many readers find difficult to sustain interest in for more than a few pages. So his writing is perfect for dipping into and capable of getting across a lot in just a few words—a natural style for the short story.
Having read his new short story collection, This Isn’t the Sort of Thing That Happens to Someone Like You, I’m thrilled to tell you that my instincts were right. I’ve admired McGregor’s novels, but I adored this collection. The stories, set in rural and small-town England, encompass a wide range of styles and techniques, but almost all of them offer some sort of unexpected twist. Sometimes it’s a turn in the plot that shows the situation is not at all what it initially appeared to be. At other times, it’s a sentence at the end that shifts or tugs at the reader’s sympathies.
For example, “We Wave and Call” (previously published in The Guardian) begins with a young man floating in a river, watching his companions swim around and contemplating how he’s going to spend the rest of his holiday. It’s an idyllic scene, until he realizes he’s floated out too far and the current is rather strong. The shift in the young man’s mood is so gradual that the reader realizes what’s happening long before he does, and our unease swells as he continues trying to reach the shore. Never does the tone of the story itself become hysterical, which makes the situation all the more devastating. It doesn’t seem like the sort of thing that would happen to someone like him.
As the stories in this volume go, “We Wave and Call” is among the more conventional. In other stories, McGregor plays around a great deal with the story form. A few of the stories are little more than a tweet—just a single pithy sentence that leaves the reader to imagine the implications. The story “Fleeing Complexity” says only, “Irby in the Marsh. The fire spread quicker than the little bastard was expecting.” From that, I could imagine a whole plot. The name Irby and the phrase “little bastard” gave me a sense of the character and why he might start such a fire. Is my picture the same as yours? Perhaps not, but the picture in my mind feels like it’s derived directly from this single line and not merely from my own imaginings.
Other stories take the form of what look like official documents, recording, for example, the disappearance or injury of some hikers who walked across a mine field or a dispute between neighbors that got out of control. The official documents assume the readers know the essentials, so those facts are never revealed. We have to read between the lines, and it’s extraordinary how much you can intuit from these records. Some stories rely on—or merely are—long lists or litanies, sometimes with slight, arresting variations. The closing story, “Memorial Stone,” is a list of English town names. Nothing more. The story itself is in that title.
Another story, “In Winter the Sky” (previously published in Granta), relies on typography and format. The page on one side tells about a man who accidentally runs over someone with a car, buries him, and goes on with his life. The page on the other side features an extended poem about the turning of the seasons. The poem, which at times is chaotically arranged on the page, appears to be commenting on the story. It’s fascinating to see how the two forms work together.
I realize that I’ve spent more time on the particularly unique stories in this collection, but not all the stories are so unusual in style. Others are much more straightforward, but often include some sort of twist in the telling. They’re not generally plotty, focusing instead on setting or on a character as he or she appears in that moment and in that place. I loved them.