The song of the city
If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things
Jon McGregor Bloomsbury, 275pp, £12.99
Jon McGregor's first novel - a surprise inclusion on the Booker Prize longlist - is at once an irritating and a moving paean to the small moments in life that often pass unnoticed or go unremarked: the sound of a child's voice, say, or our secrets, or the smell of peppermint foot scrub. The plot revolves around one of those day-in-the-life structures: ideal for those still in mourning for 24 (BBC2) but who are not quite ready for Ulysses. This particular day in this particular street ended with an awful accident, witnessed by all those who live there. The nameless horror of the incident is magnified by being embedded in a double timescale. An objective narrator portrays the day slowly unfolding on all the people who live in the street, while one of the street's former inhabitants travels back to it through memory. Eventually, they converge and tell you what actually happened.
This is not a bad device, but because you are constantly on the lookout for causes or consequences that hint at what the horror might be (and McGregor throws in a great many decoys), every trivial incident becomes loaded with significance. Which is, I guess, the whole point.
McGregor's insistence on the transcendental significance of just about everything can be very tiresome. Sometimes, as in the sub-Dylan Thomas opening, you feel as if you have been buttonholed by an evangelist who insists on breathing poetry down your neck: "If you listen, you can hear it./The city, it sings."
There seem to be two impulses at work in the book's desire to "speak of remarkable things". There is a yearning to record everything, to make the reader realise that if only we were capable of hearing, just for one day, all the thoughts of all the people who live in our street, we would have enough material for an epic. There is also a subtle awareness of the transformative power of speech on what is described. McGregor does not merely set things in language to record them, neutrally: the act of articulation invests them with new life.
The plot pivots around unspoken secrets and memories which, once told, take on a completely different meaning. Similarly, hardly anyone in the street has a name: they are just "the cricket-playing boys" or "the man with the trimmed moustache".
The novel climaxes with a kind of baptism, the first proper naming of a character; and there is a corresponding shift in tone from sepia to digital colour. This suggests that McGregor almost deliberately left most of his characters underdeveloped, as if to show that people, however much we see of them, are not real to us until we know their name.
This is a passionate novel by a young writer seeking to unravel the essential mystery of other people, to make us care. The trouble is, he tries far too hard. But when he refrains from rhapsodising raindrops, when he stops being fey and portentous and attempts to write simply instead, McGregor succeeds in what he set out to do: revitalise the commonplace.