Wednesday, January 04, 2023

Reading Group: Lean Fall Stand by Jon McGregor

Having read together both Jon McGregor's first novel, If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things and in particular his magnificent Reservoir 13, our group have been fans of his work, and were eager to read this novel when Mark suggested it. There, sure enough, was the wonderful prose - lean yet vivid - which we all very much appreciated and enjoyed; overall, however, we were a little disappointed.

The book is divided into three parts. The first, and most distinct from the others, Lean, was inspired by a 2004 trip McGregor made to the Antarctic, as part of a Writers and Artists Programme run by the British Antarctic Survey. Set in the Antarctic, it deals with a tragedy that occurs when two novice Antarctic researchers and their experienced leader 'Doc' all become separated from each other in a sudden snowstorm and Doc suffers a stroke that renders him incapable of saving the situation. The second and longest part, Fall, deals with Doc's painful recovery back home in the UK, and chiefly takes the viewpoint of the wife who has lived to some extent independently from a husband spending several months of every year away in the Antarctic, but must now make sacrifices in her academic career to care for him. The third, Stand, consists mainly of scenes from the Aphasia Group they attend as Doc reaches back for the language he has lost.

There was no doubt amongst us that the most compelling section was the first. Many have pointed out that this section has the tension of an adventure story. There is a sense of dire urgency as the two young researchers try to make contact through a failing radio system, short separate sections formally embodying their separation. There is impending doom in the flashback moments, as in this section describing the comings and goings of researchers over the years:

... The bodies came, and they went... The ice slipped and broke into the water... The daylight was silence... The bodies breathed in their narrow wooden shelter. The weather closed in again... There was movement in the water, and the sky darkened above the glacier.

The descriptions of the Antarctic landscape are stunning:

The night-time was no such thing. The continent kept its face towards the sun and the ice slowly softened. The mountains climbed sharply away from the valley and the glaciers tongued down towards the sea. In the crevasses that ran across the lower mountain slopes the light fell bluely down, dimming towards the depths.

While everyone in our group agreed that the book was a very quick read, the change to a different kind of tension - that of Doc's slow recovery and his wife's adjustment to her new situation - was a good deal less compelling, certainly by comparison, and the scenes with the Aphasia Group were repetitive, if necessarily so due to the nature of the members' language problems. John said that partly what had made the book a quick read for him was that he had found himself skipping these latter sections. The prose itself in the latter two sections embodies a loss of tension: it becomes much more conventional, indeed in the last section somewhat workaday, and thus less emotive. One problem for me, I said, was that it was hard to become invested in Doc's recovery since he had come over in the first section as a not particularly attractive character - fogeyish and self-centred - and indeed, it was his irresponsibility and maybe hubris that paved the way for the tragedy. Others agreed. His stroke occurring during the ensuing crisis detracts from his culpability, and his resulting loss of language is a protection for him against the truth coming out. It was hard as a result not to feel that he was unfairly getting away with it all - especially as the first section had established our sympathies firmly with the young men in dire trouble. Towards the end of the book, the members of the Aphasia Group stage a show for relatives, with Doc's situation, which had begun so dramatically in such dramatic surroundings, as the finale; Doug said he expected Doc, having regained some language facility, to make a dramatic public confession - and others said the same - but no such thing happens. 

The thing we so admire in Remarkable Things and Reservoir 13 is McGregor's ability to create a framing panoramic view of a community while homing in on the personal viewpoints of its members, creating an effect we find very moving. In this book, however, we found no such unifying principle, and felt that, as Mark said, it fell apart into its three sections, and it was hard to tell what it was really about. Was  it about Antarctica? No, we soon leave Antarctica behind. (I said that I thought there was a hugely missed opportunity in Antarctica as a symbol for the freezing of language - or at least, I didn't find any consciousness of that in the novel.) Is it about Doc's recovery? But then the viewpoint in the second section is chiefly that of his wife Anna: is it about Anna's personal drama? But then she too comes across as unsympathetic - as detached as her children once or twice accuse her of being. Is it about aphasia in general, as the last section seems to be? This last section is the only point at which the novel deals like McGregor's previous novels with anything like a community, but the viewpoints we share here, apart from that of the observing Anna, are those of the course leader and the language therapist, and those very briefly. While in the first section we enter the newly traumatised head of Doc and share his language confusion (which is cleverly and empathically done), in the last section we are simply objective observers of aphasia sufferers, and the scope for empathy is much less. McGregor's ability to switch viewpoints is used to brilliant effect in his previous novels, but I felt that here for much of the time it seemed random and contributed to our sense of lack of focus. In fact, I said, even in the first section, in which the narrative enters alternately the minds of the men in danger, I found it hard to quite fully engage with them, due to not knowing anything much about them before we are in the thick of their crisis.

Ann said that she found unbelievable that the leaders of teams in the Antarctic should act with such irresponsibility (there is another incident of even greater irresponsibility in the past, in which one of Doc's colleagues died): she felt sure that in such extreme conditions things would be much stricter.  Finally, Doug commented that McGregor's technique of seeming to begin with one kind of story - in Reservoir 13 a conventional murder story and here an adventure story - and then confounding the reader's expectations by turning it into another, more serious kind of story, had worked brilliantly in the former novel, but hadn't worked here. Of all of us, Clare was the most positive towards the book, saying that she had read it in one sitting and had in fact quite enjoyed it, though adding that she had been in the mood for a quick and perhaps not too serious read. 

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here