[29 April 2010]
Jon McGregor has been longlisted for the Man Booker prize twice. In his third novel, Even the Dogs, he has another great shot at garnering some big name recognition.
Even the Dogs is a window into a spiderweb of lives woven around a core of dependency. The chemical dependencies vary in their composition and duration, and these addictions spawn a complicated network of personal dependencies. Who, where, when, how: Where can I score? When can I get it? How will I get the money? Where can I cook up in peace?
Who will take care of me?
At times, McGregor plays with a disjointed, colloquial use of language, recording the stream of consciousness of a junkie who stumbles across a body, and bolts, torn between his concern for telling someone about it, his fear of being tied to the death, and his need for his next fix. At first Danny’s attention is equally spread between these concerns. As time goes on, however, and he can’t find anyone to tell, the visceral need of his chemical dependency takes over. McGregor plays fast and loose with punctuation and half-completed thoughts, putting the reader in the junkie’s frenetic, desperate, dirty shoes.
Throughout the novel there are these intense episodes, full of the need of an addict. Danny thinks, “every day like this, trying to keep our heads above the water. Or more like trying to keep our heads above like boiling tar or something”. A gritty determination to prevent withdrawal symptoms, the shakes, the rattles, the realization that everything is all messed up, these are the reasons McGregor’s characters move from one addiction to the next, experimenting and chasing the memory of that original, breathtaking high.
Contrasting with these episodes are softer, layered scenes where the idyllic past overlaps with the harsh present. As the police investigate a dilapidated tenement house and find the body, the gruesome nature of a possible crime scene fades. A cinematic portrayal of a better past overlays the dingy space. A couple, moving in and fixing the place up, an undetermined number of years ago. Their movements are full of potential and caring as they work together to fix up their new home.
Freshly pasted wallpaper is the meter that measures time passing, as weeks and months follow its installation, written like an extended camera exposure:
Sunlight comes in through the kitchen window and the open kitchen door, falls against the striped pattern at the far end of the hall, and bleaches the colour away…The steam from the bath curls out into the hallway, easing the wallpaper away from the wall. Peppered spores of mould thicken and spread towards the ceiling.
The promise of a growing family in a new home: “Crayon scribbles appear, low on the wallpaper by the heaps of shoes and boxes of toys.” Then the scene turns ominous:
Teastains the colour of old photographs splash across the wall, lingering long after the broken cups are cleared away. A dent the size of a fist or a forehead is hidden by a framed school portrait. The damp patches spread further, and the paper sags away from the wall, and the ceiling stains a darkening nicotine yellow.
Meanwhile, the coroner enters the same space, years later, and confirms the death. The police photographers move in to set up their equipment. Martin Amis’ novel Time’s Arrow (1991) came to mind, with its fixation on the passing of time and the author’s dedication to giving the reader a new view on time’s movement. McGregor achieves a completely different effect, and the layering works perfectly to set up a story of contrasts.
Future hopes with present squalor. The potential of youth and love with the reality of alcoholism, physical abuse, drug addiction. The need for physical relationships contrasts with withdrawal symptoms that demand chemical solutions and distance the addict from meaningful human relationships. Even the Dogs forces the reader to consider real addiction and the way that society as a larger whole interacts with individuals who struggle with these demons:
People think it’s all about being hungry and that but hungry’s got nothing to do with it. Can always find food if you want it. Soup runs and day centres and hostels and that. Food don’t cost much. Food don’t cost nothing if you know where to look. Can go without eating for a couple of days, more when there’s other stuff you need to sort first. Like getting sorted.
What solutions are available to alcoholics and junkies who don’t want to get better? McGregor puts the reader into the minds of this interconnected web of people bent on various journeys of self-destruction. He constructs a powerful, disjointed narrative about dependency that is nearly impossible to put down, though it’s not easy reading.
Dependency comes in various forms. It can be a physical craving, a driving hunger, a psychological need. Whatever form addiction takes, it’s unwavering in its destructive path.