As soon as I read Teresa’s review of Jon McGregor’s book of short stories, This isn’t the sort of thing that happens to someone like you, it was on my TBR list. This is exactly the kind of thing I love to read: short stories in which the author is doing something odd with the medium, playing with form, engaging the reader in interesting ways while still telling a real story. I don’t mind if it’s weird, or if I get to it around several corners; in fact I like it, and I think short stories are a particularly sustainable way to do weird things. Extra points for a little menace. Menace, to me, adds flavor.
The stories in this collection, as you might guess from the title, revolve around what is not: the unrevealed, the undone, the hidden. Many of the stories work so well because what is hidden from the narrator was open to me. In “Watching Over the Sheep,” for instance, the male protagonist has come to see his daughter in a school nativity play. I could see during the first paragraph that he’s trouble, and my conviction (even dread) grew through the rest of the story as I picked up one cue after another from his internal monologue. He, however, is blind to those cues — and when he thinks that “someone is going to be asked, in no uncertain terms, to explain,” I realized that no explanation will ever be enough. “Wave and Call,” the story Teresa described in her review, is like this: we understand the protagonist’s fate long before he does himself, and the story is both gripping and wrenching because of it.
Sometimes I knew less than the narrator did, carried along on the current of the story. Stories that played with form, like “What Happened to Mr. Davison,” a brisk mistakes-were-made speech given to a neighborhood society following a traumatic event, or “Supplementary Notes to the Testimony of Appellants B and E” (which consisted only of footnotes, and I had to imagine the text they were appended to) were like this. I had to work at creating a version of what happened, when everyone in the story already knew. What was the truth this person was trying to hide, or spin, or manage? How awful could it be?
Sometimes — in my favorite stories — the truth was equally hidden to me and to the people in the story, and we worked it out together. In “Wires,” a young woman who has just been in a car accident involving a rogue sugar beet has to determine her own real danger. In “Which Reminded Her, Later,” an American woman — a total stranger — comes to stay with a vicar and his wife for several months and actively refuses to make any sort of personal connection, including sharing her name. In “If It Keeps On Raining,” a man observes the river near his home and slowly, slowly reveals the pattern of his thoughts — it may sound dull, but for me it was the most interesting story of the entire collection.
This was a satisfying collection to read. The stories were all very different from each other, and all interesting. I enjoyed the entire thing, and found it well-written and well-balanced. I will say that I probably would have liked them even more if I hadn’t read George Saunders’s Tenth of December. Saunders writes in a similar vein, and plays with form like this, but his stories are even better: he digs deeper into the weirdness and wickedness of human behavior, and he finds, eventually, some form of hope. I’d recommend both collections to you. Do you know more authors who write like this? I could read this stuff all day long.