If nobody speaks of remarkable things
Most books are flawed, and it’s one measure of good and bad how many and how serious those flaws are. These days, reviews tend to consider the flaws by the by, rating a book on its conception, the breadth of its scope, the success of its plot. One might suppose this is as good a way to present a book as any other, so that the reader has an idea of the book’s ability to engage ideas, to enchant, to stretch the bounds, without being put off too much by its weaknesses.
The downside of this is that reviews tend to praise what the book attempted rather than what it achieved. For instance, Erica Wagner said of If nobody speaks of remarkable things that it painted a “hypnotic portrait of industrialised society”. (I note this from the back cover, not from the original review, which I did not read.) Well, it tries to, it is its intention, certainly. But it doesn’t. If she had said it paints a rather vague picture of urban life, which is dull enough to be recognisable, but doesn’t surprise you enough in the detail to be enlightening, she would have been far more accurate. Still, she’s not alone. Apparently, the Observer (home of the exquisitely poor, arsekisser’s review, it has to be said) described the prose as careful. Given that it’s one of the book’s major features that it seems not to have been edited, this is laughable (“scrawl” is a kind of careless drawing, not the noise a cat makes, however poetic we are being; the lazy switching of tenses occasionally confuses – I’m not sure McGregor understands the pluperfect at all, but an editor ought to; the narrative voice is not focused, so that there are places where the reader isn’t sure whether we are still reading what someone is thinking, or about them).
The book’s conceit is of course that the “remarkable things” he speaks of are the quite ordinary events of our days (in particular, the character who uses the phrase notes the miracle of flocks of birds’ not clashing one with the other – ahem). But McGregor does not make them remarkable – he carefully describes them so that they are rendered quite as dull as they are. Compare if you will Lights out for the territory, where Sinclair finds notes in London’s palimpsest that reveal the hidden city. Or Amis, whose London fields shows an understanding of urban existence that almost approaches Dickens’. You do not care for McGregor’s characters (he leaves most with loose ends, which doesn’t worry you as much as you might expect because you simply do not give a hoot what becomes of, for instance, the old guy with lung disease – who is, you can be sure, as is usual in this particular cliché, hiding it from his wife – but presume he dies and that is that). You can’t really get them straight enough in your head, since they are not well enough composed, to be sure who he’s talking about at any one time.
It doesn’t help that for a reason that only becomes apparent in the last few pages (with a huge thudding clunk) the narrator of half the book is a woman who is so unconvincingly drawn that you simply cannot forget that this is a woman as written by a man. Men rarely write women well (and vice versa, of course) unless they are making caricatures of them (Becky Sharp is a great character because she is no woman you know, ditto Miss Havisham) or focused pastiches of some small element. McGregor is nothing like well enough acquainted with women, it seems, to be even plausible.
He had the germ of an idea, a good idea maybe, and the book is easy enough to read (most will be less annoyed by its technical deficiencies than I was). But should we settle for that?