Even the Dogs, by Jon McGregor


Review copy courtesy Bloomsbury

Any story summary of Even the Dogs is bound to discourage, rather than encourage, potential readers. “They break down the door at the end of December and carry the body away” is the opening sentence. The story of that body, both how it came to be there and what happens to it in the hands of the authorities in the next few days, is the novel’s narrative structure. Within that structure, author Jon McGregor develops portrayals of a cast of society’s losers, united by their addiction and homelessness, the fact that they used to shoot up behind that door and, most important, their shared alienation from the normal world around them. The sorrow and degradation of the members of this cast are not only relentless, they are explored in often excruciating detail.

The publisher’s description of the book was enough to have me thinking that it wasn’t for me. Two readers whom I respect (Ang and paddy-joe at the Palimpsest forum) convinced me otherwise and I am very glad they did. Even the Dogs is an incredibly moving novel — no matter how dreary this review might make it seem, it deserves to be read. And I fully expect to be discussing it again this summer when the 2010 Booker Prize list is announced; regardless of what is published between now and then, McGregor’s book deserves a place on that list.

It is not just the subject matter that makes Even the Dogs difficult to review. McGregor does not so much tell his story as weave it from badly-damaged raw material. The narrative voice changes, often from paragraph to paragraph. He moves back and forth in time equally frequently without warning and the point of view is often ambiguous. Part of what is so strong about the novel is his ability to slowly pull the reader into that discordant rhythm; any attempt to describe it in more detail is a spoiler in itself.

There is also a “chorus” that is introduced only a few short paragraphs after that opening sentence:

We see someone getting out of taxi parked further up the hill. She leaves the door open, and we see two carrier bags stuffed full of clothes and books and make-up on the back seat. She comes up the short flight of steps, and bangs on the door. This is Laura. She shouts through the letterbox. She gestures for the taxi-driver to wait, and goes round to the side of the building. We see her climbing on to a garage roof and in through the kitchen window of the flat. She stands in the kitchen for a few moments. She looks like she’s talking to someone. She climbs out again, drops down from the garage roof, and gets back into the taxi.

That “we” will be present throughout the book, but McGregor does not neglect the individuals that are part of this ramshackle, substance-abusing community. Permit a couple of quotes on just one, Danny:

We see Danny, running across the playing fields with Einstein limping along behind him. We peer round the corner of the flats and see him climbing on to the roof of the garages. Einstein looks up, barking and scrabbling at the garage door, and we hear the creak of a window being opened.

A few pages later, the opening to chapter two (there are five, each exploring a different aspect of the story as the body moves through the post-death stages of officialdom):

They carry the his body through the city at dusk and take him away to the morgue.

And we see Danny, stumbling away from the garages at the back of the flats, tumbling down the hill like he’s about to fall, rubbing at his cheeks with the backs of his hands in great angry gestures which look almost like punches, wiping at the tears which haven’t yet fallen from a face still twisted with fear. Einstein beside him, snapping and whining and trying to keep up, held back as always by the weight of her broken

That is not a typo at the end of that quote; suddenly breaking off one of his observations while he moves somewhere else is one of McGregor’s more effective techniques. And while the “we” introduces the characters and is always observing, those characters do acquire their own voices and stories. Danny and Laura — and a number of others — become tragically real people as the novel progresses. If you have the patience to join with the novelist in letting your mind roam, rather than asking for tidy linear development, they all come to life.

They do have some other things in common. Their situation is definitely someone else’s fault: parents, child welfare experiences, the army, the state generally. It is a handy excuse and the author (and they) know that is bullshit. They are incredibly accomplished liars, be it at the rec centre, the day shelter, the soup kitchen, the vicar’s manse. Also, being an addict is a full-time job and then some. Having scored (and usually shared) a hit, life immediately moves on to getting the next one. In fact, many of the characteristics of “normal” life (threats, opportunities, fear, hope, the value of loyalty, the cost of misplaced trust) play out in this community as well, they just play out in different ways.

As I hope the quotes illustrate, without being too much of a spoiler, the author accomplishes this with prose that is deliberately flat and unemotional; absolutely devoid of melodrama and as results-oriented as the coroner who eventually shows up late in the book. The material is so powerful in and of itself, that there is absolutely no need for flourish — for this reader, at least, all of the emotion builds of its own accord.

I’m afraid this review does a very poor job of adequately describing why this is such a good book. Trust me — it is. And trying to illustrate why would ruin the chance of letting you discover that for yourself.

27 Responses to “Even the Dogs, by Jon McGregor”

  1. Wilson Knut Says:

    You absolutely succeeded in making me want to read this book. Thanks!


  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Thanks, Wilson. I did not want to give anything away (and that is not like me as I do tend toward spoilers) but I did want to indicate that I think it is worth reading.

    If I can use your comment to expand a bit… there have been a number of comparisons in reviews between this book and Kelman, which I think are valid. Even more, however, I would compare it to American urban fiction — parts of it are reminscient of Roth and at other times I was reminded of Last Exit to Brooklyn (which I haven’t read in 20 years, so take that with a grain of salt).


  3. Trevor Says:

    I agree with Wilson, Kevin: great review! I saw you’d posted one and thought I’d just skim the first paragraph and them read it in more detail later, but it was so compelling. You’ve certainly intrigued me!


  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I will be interested in your thoughts when you get to this one, Trevor. McGregor shares some characteristics with Roth but also writes about people in a different world — his characters are much more removed from being able to influence their own destiny.


  5. Colette Jones Says:

    I’m so glad you liked this book, Kevin. So far everyone I know who has read it agrees. That must change soon I’d have thought, but I think there will be some outrage if it doesn’t make the Booker list.


  6. William Rycroft Says:

    Great to read this Kevin. I was a huge fan of McGregor’s début, picking it as one of my books of the decade, but found it impossible to get going on his second. I’ve seen some positive reviews for this elsewhere but there’s something about your ‘conversion’, from sceptic to believer, that is far more compelling. Thank you


  7. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Will: I do think that approaching it with some scepticism was helpful — the description did remind me somewhat of Man Gone Down which I abandoned, only to see it win the IMPAC. I haven’t read any McGregor’s before this one, so cannot comment on how it relates to his previous books.

    Colette: What impressed me most, I think, is the way the author is so deliberate in developing the many threads of his story. It would have been easy to move into sentimentality (or judgment) and he avoids that completely.


  8. William Rycroft Says:

    By a quirk of fate dovegreyreader has an interview with McGregor on her blog today: http://bit.ly/cPzi3R


  9. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Thanks, Will — I checked in to add that link to the interview and you had already provided it. What impressed me with McGregor in that exchange is that his voice is so similar to the narrative of the book — he is methodical, deliberate and precise in both his fiction and his online interview. That is a difficult voice to maintain when your characters are homeless drug addicts with some severe mental issues. For me, it is a major factor in the success of the book.


  10. Cherine Badwi-Hlady Says:

    Look forward to reading this one. I was a big fan of McGregor’s debut, If Nobody Speakers of Remarkable Things, which was Booker nominated. The book recounts one day in the life of the inhabitants on a particular England street. The reader learns that that day a terrible accident will happen on that street – but the accident, and who it happens to, is not revealed until the novel’s close. By that time, the reader is so so caught up in the lives of all characters as they go about their day that it’s heartbreaking to imagine harm coming to any of them. It was really well done I thought.


  11. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Thanks for that summary, Cherine. I do intend to get to that first book eventually.


  12. The In-Shelf – February 2010 « Lizzy’s Literary Life Says:

    […] – Maggie Gee; Jon McGregor – Even the Dogs (another fantastic KevinfromCanada review here); The Hand that First Held Mine – Maggie O’Farrell; The Long Song – Andrea […]


  13. kimbofo Says:

    I have both of McGregor’s previous efforts in my queue, but have not yet read them. I’m really intrigued by this new one: it does sound like something I would very much like.


  14. nico Says:

    Yes, I agree, I also read ‘If nobody…’ and was captured by his peculiar narrative. I didn’t know about this novel, thanks!


  15. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Nico: For me, at least, it is a very effective narrative style, particularly when dealing with such troubling subject matter.


  16. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Fascinating Kevin, when it comes out in paperback (which I fear may be some while yet) I’ll definitely pick it up.


  17. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: I read Bloomsbury’s “bendy-back” version and would say that it is worth the try. While I gather a few Antipodean books have been published in the format, it was a first for me. The cover is like a high-quality trade paperback but has obvious cloth content, which places it between hardback and paperback. It is very lap friendly and the price seems to be located between hardback and paperback as well. As I said, worth the trial from my point of view.


  18. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Also, Max, it is out in paperback already, according to the Book Depository.


  19. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Excellent, thank you Kevin. Though now you describe it, I’ll look into that Bloomsbury edition.

    My paperbacks only rule is sometimes a pain, I was going to buy Mann’s The Magic Mountain over the weekend, but the best regarded translation is an Everyman’s Classics and they’re hardback only. I’ll get that at some point, but being a hardback means I have to read it at home, which for a book of that length makes it more problematic to find time for it.

    Still, lacking storage space as I do, paperbacks remain in the main the way forward for me. Anyway, thanks again, I’ll pick it up.


  20. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I do think you will become a “bendy-back” advocate — it does not have much more bulk that a paperback, opens in a much more friendly fashion and strikes me as being more “damage” resistant than conventional paperbacks.


  21. bookermt Says:

    I’d like to think this would be a serious prize contender but I’m not sure the subject matter is in its favour when push comes to shove. No doubting the quality of the writing but I’m just not sure this is the “fashion” at the moment. It would make a decent change however, for a short well written and thought provoking book to win the booker rather than some of the more turgid offerings that have won lately.
    It is also refreshing to see a positive reaction “overseas” as when I read it I wasn’t sure how well it would travel.


  22. KevinfromCanada Says:

    bookermt: It travels very well — I think every metropolitan area has some version of the community of people that are in this book. As for prizes, I think it will depend entirely on the character of the jury. It is certainly at the top of my list on what I have read so far this year.


  23. Guy Savage Says:

    The “we see” sticks out. Did this become annoying after a while?


  24. Rick Pittman Says:

    I just read this and agree with your review. It was very good. I have to admit that it took me awhile to really appreciate the structure and the voice of the characters. I became closer to the characters and more appreciative of the writing style as the book progressed. It was very direct and although I’m not speaking from experience, felt very genuine. It was not always enjoyable and i can’t imagine rereading it but I will think about this book for a long time.

    It definitely should have been on the Booker Long list that. Year.


  25. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Rick: Thanks for bringing this one back to the top of the comment list (after more than two years). Your comment reminded me that it did take some time for the characters and their various voices to land with me as well — but when they finally did it was with a lot of impact. And a couple of years on, I remember aspects of the novel very well. It would have been a very worthwhile Booker contender.


  26. Kelly J Says:

    Hi all,

    I understand this thread is a little old now but I thought I would post anyway. I am a Lit student at Winchester University and am beginning my dissertation research. I have chosen to look at McGregor’s works in terms of Romanticism vs Realism, Poetry vs Prose, the existence of beauty in the bleak, and addiction/death as sublime. The point of our dissertation is to ‘contribute to current critical debate’ so, instead of parroting out ideas that a million critics have already said or at least suggested on well established canonized texts, I thought I would go contemporary and go with McGregor.

    Even the Dogs absolutely bowled me over, as did Remarkable Things. An incredible author using such interesting and powerful narrative techniques. So poignant and emotive. Absolutely stunning contemporary literature. Glad others have enjoyed McGregor’s works as I have. Certainly, a selection of works that refuses to leave you be, that attaches itself firmly to the memory and continues to haunt and never detach from you as a reading experience. In that sense, much like Beloved by Toni Morrison, I remember feeling the same haunted feeling.

    Kelly x


    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Thank you bringing the review back up for consideration — and for your thoughts. This is the only McGregor that I have read, but it remains with me. And I certainly think he is an author who is worthy of serious study, so my thoughts are with you as you continue your research.


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