In 2017, the weird and wonderful British novelist Jon McGregor told a Guardian an interviewer, he had an “antipathy to the ‘great drama'”. Tank 13, which takes place over a period of 13 years and is told collectively by the inhabitants of a rural English town, including the birds and animals living in its hedges. At first glance, however, McGregor’s latest novel, Skinny fall stand, is about as big a drama as a book can be. It opens in the middle of an ice storm in Antarctica; his hero, a career expedition guide named Doc Wright, has parted ways with Luke and Thomas, the two young cartography experts under his charge. No one can see, none of their radios are working, their satellite phones are dead, and worst of all, something’s going wrong in Doc’s head. He changes words. By the time the storm ends, his ability to use language has collapsed.
McGregor renders this drama and its spinoff, which occupies the majority of the novel, in his usually stripped-down prose. He’s one of the few great minimalists alive, able to mix deep pathos with tongue-in-cheek comedy in a sentence too short to require a single comma. Her work bears some resemblance to the laconically offbeat Joy Williams, but seems more deeply influenced by the repetitions and stuttering escapes common in everyday speech. Often in Skinny fall stand, his sentences seem less linked than stacked on top of each other, sharing or hiding the meaning. Sometimes McGregor draws a little blood with this habit; it is impossible not to hate a research institute official who gives bad news by saying that someone is “very sadly passed away, that is, dead”. More often than not, however, McGregor leaves readers little choice but to sympathize with his elusive speakers. Skinny fall stand is, after all, a novel largely about aphasia: the stroke Doc suffers from during the ice storm leaves his ability to communicate drastically impaired. McGregor never blames the characters around him – let alone his long-suffering wife Anna – for not knowing what to say.
Skinny fall stand has an omniscient narrator, but that narrator spends the entire middle section of the novel either inside Anna’s head or hovering just above her. Her inner conflict is the thorniest set of emotions in the book. She has no desire to take care of her recovering husband; she wasn’t even sure she wanted to be a woman – but she loves Doc, and what can she do besides help him? McGregor expresses the grueling weight of his responsibilities in a never-ending march of sentences that all begin with the same sentence: “She had to change the sheets in the morning because he messed up the use of the pot of the bed and hoisted himself up in the chair. She must have put a towel on the chair because her pajamas were still wet, “and so on. All of these must-haves are tiring to read, and rightly so. The repetition here reflects exhaustion. Anna more effectively than any detailed description.
Always, Skinny fall stand is at its weakest, though by no means weak, in the section of Anna, which never quite breaks out of the ambivalent tropes of woman. Her wavering loyalty to her husband becomes too much of the guiding spirit of the book – and that’s touching, but not necessarily urgent. McGregor doesn’t really raise a question about what Anna will do; she might aspire to a different life, but her desire, to use Vivian Gornick’s expression, is “an act of nostalgia, not of discovery.” On the other hand, Skinny fall standThe final section of, in which Doc joins some sort of aphasia support group, is all about discovery, as is his career in Antarctica. McGregor carefully guides Doc in his reacquisition of language, both verbal and non-verbal; the conversation becomes, metaphorically speaking, a slippery peak to climb, infinitely more intimidating than the literal glaciers Doc once climbed. If this is a larger comment on the pitfalls of communication, McGregor is wise enough not to exaggerate the idea. Each sentence of Skinny fall stand serves, in its style, as a discreet reminder of the difficulty of representing oneself to others. No need to point it out loud, too.
Outraged, Skinny fall stand is more optimistic about communication than one might expect. McGregor’s characters can rarely have a clue of “what to say, or how to say it,” but, awkwardly, they try. Doc’s efforts to make himself understood become the great drama of the book, far more exciting than his career in Antarctica. Antarctica, as young cartographic expert Luke complains at the beginning of the book, can be “downright boring… once you’ve finished looking, the actual experience of being here day in and day out has been quite a long one.” Of course, the same is true of being in your own head. Personality, basically, is dull. How, besides communicating with each other, is someone supposed to take a break?
Lily Meyer is a writer and translator living in Cincinnati, Ohio.