In Even the Dogs, his third novel, Jon McGregor illuminates the lives of a group of homeless, itinerant drug addicts in much the same way as he shed light on the lives of ‘ordinary’ people in If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things. What makes this book perhaps more valuable, if not more well-written, than his wonderful debut is the way in which his writing encourages us to form a kinship with this most demonised underclass. This is most obvious in his use of the first-person plural throughout large sections of the narrative – for example, ‘And how long must we wait. How long have we waited already. For something to happen’.
McGregor encourages this identification through more than this rather transparent ploy. Firstly, ‘we’ refers not only to the group of addicts but to the all-pervasive ‘we’ of an all-seeing consciousness that takes the God perspective on the events following Robert’s sudden death. For example, as policemen force the door of his flat, ‘They don’t see us, as we crowd and push around them. Of course they don’t. How could they. But we’re used to that.’ This appeals to the idea of a common imaginative world that we share with the main characters, as well as pulling us closer to the particular we of their group, their experience of being removed from the rest of society, and passing unseen in the streets. Secondly, McGregor helps us empathise with the characters by focusing on the small, precise details of the society that we share. Laura, Robert’s daughter, has been told by her keyworker that she will be on her road to recovery when she can get up and make a cup of tea first thing in the morning without thinking about drugs. Near the end of the novel, Laura considers the impossibility and the banality of this ordinary ritual: ‘Watching the teabag rise to the surface and turn and fall. Can she give herself the time. Is she halfway there and. Waiting for the tea to brew. Scooping out the bag and dropping it in the bin and stirring in the milk... Sitting at the table with the steam rising out of the mug and catching the light and turning in the air.’
On that note, there are two passages in the novel that I want to discuss in more detail, because they form some of the best writing in the book and because they most completely express McGregor’s view of the interconnectedness of space, time and society. The first appears near the very beginning of the novel, when the police are investigating Robert’s flat. As they tape off the scene of his death, McGregor takes us through his whole lifetime in this flat as if it were a time-lapse photograph: ‘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... Dated felt-tip stripes creep up the wall by the doorframe, tracking their daughter’s growth’. But even as the flat ages, McGregor describes Robert and his lover, Yvonne, bathing together in their youth as if it were still happening, and still is, in another time. The other passage of this kind is later, describing the production of heroin from its origins in poppy fields to its arrival in England, as Ant, one of the group, struggles through Bosnia on a journey of his own: ‘the boys and their light-footed mules are halfway home, their pockets fat with money and their talk full of what they will do with it, the things they will buy their families and the savings they will put towards a scrap of land on which to grow poppies of their own, while somewhere overhead Ant still lies in the belly of the helicopter as it clatters over the landscape’. Instead of separating the addicts into a world of their own, McGregor reconnects them.
But having brought us so completely into their world, McGregor ends the novel with something akin to the scene in Lord of the Flies where an adult suddenly arrives at the boys’ island and sees it differently. The final chapter concerns a transcript of the official inquest into Robert’s death, where Laura is called as a witness. The grace and poetry of Laura’s narration is suddenly reduced to the inarticulate face she presents to the outside world:
CORONER: Do you know why he hadn’t drunk any alcohol prior to his death?...
LAURA: Only, I mean, he knew about me going to rehab, he found out about it like. I told him, I mean. He might have thought, after that, you know.
CORONER: He might have decided to do some rehab of his own, you mean?
And ultimately, we realise that there is no way into, or out of, her head. ‘Where will she go now. What will she. Leave town and. Stick to her script and wait for another place in. Will they let her have another.’ With supreme irony, The Daily Mail calls this novel ‘a short, brilliant and beautiful lesson in empathy’; it’s a lesson that not only the readers of that paper could benefit from, but all the readers of this book.