Clyde Forth, Forgive and Forget; Ink, marker, graphite on graph paper; 8.25 × 10.5
Jon McGregor’s newest collection, This Isn’t The Sort Of Thing That Happens To Someone Like You will sneak up on you. What at first seems like a realistic story of everyday people doing everyday things quietly forms a little surface crack, then a fissure, and suddenly the cistern under the ordinary floods out.
The first piece, “That Colour,” sets this pattern gorgeously. A woman observes that a certain shade of autumn leaves has returned, as it always does. She points this out to a man we assume is her partner. They have a circular conversation about the leaves, their color. “Those trees are turning that beautiful color again,” she says. “Is that right?” He asks. In less than two minutes, I had chills in a way that is rare and holy. It is clear they are not just talking about leaves, but the seasons in their own relationship and their eventual bodily demise.
It is a little unfortunate that the story that follows, “In Winter The Sky,” is one of the more disorienting, albeit ambitious pieces. On one page there is a third person account of a husband’s long-kept and gruesome secret, while on the opposite page is a long attempt at a poem written by his wife. It has its moments, but I found myself craving more of the bare beauty in the opener. It probably would have been a good idea to take a walk around the block before diving into the next one.
This is not to say that McGregor should have stuck to a shorter, simpler form. One of the most successful and complete stories, “Which Reminded Her, Later,” is also one of the longer ones. In it, a preacher offers his guest room to a middle-aged American woman who has some kind of mysterious medical condition and bizarre manners. We get the story as a flashback from the preacher’s wife’s perspective; there was something about the visitor and about the situation that still bothers her after so many years, an itch she can’t scratch. The voice, a close third person, is perfectly utilized here. It creates just enough dissonance and disconnection to nearly recreate the wife’s state of mind inside the reader.
Though many of the stories are similarly unadorned and straightforward, McGregor is not afraid to make brave structural decisions. One story is presented as notes to a house meeting with footnotes and redacted words. Another is nothing but endnotes to a testimony we don’t hear. Occasionally these devices becomes distracting, specifically in “Looking Up Vagina.” This coming of age story centers on a young, bullied word-nerd, and for some unknown reason almost every V-word in the English language is employed in a span of a few pages. By the end, I had the same relief one has after seeing a struggling comedian complete an open-mic set. Cue the reluctant applause and turn the page.
Behind the pieces, all but one of which are set in rural England, is the idea that everyone has a story to tell, a truth that should come with a qualifier: some stories and voices are naturally more captivating than others. McGregor has a talent for giving the mundane a thriller-like intensity, but when he misses the mark, the mundane is just deeply, deeply mundane. Fortunately, he’s able to apply that transformative twist more often than not. The work, as you might expect, disproves the title. These are exactly the sorts of things that happen to people like you.