Review: Jon McGregor Experiments with Short Fiction in 'This Isn't The Sort Of Thing That Happens To Someone Like You'

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The short story may be a fledgling writer’s format of choice here in the US, but that isn’t the case everywhere. In the UK it has become increasingly difficult to sell short fiction to a market that’s dominated by longer works – a fact that makes young British author Jon McGregor‘s collection of stories This Isn’t The Sort Of Thing That Happens To Someone Like You all the more remarkable.

The very existence of a new short story collection by an acclaimed British author is cause for celebration, but in McGregor’s case the excitement is doubled. Ever since he was nominated for the prestigious Booker Prize in 2002 for his debut If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, McGregor has been a name to watch on the literary scene, a potential inheritor of Ian McEwan’s impressive mantle. His writing is smart but accessible, revolutionary but rooted in tradition, thrilling but deeply nuanced. Remarkable things seemed to be on their way.

All of which makes This Isn’t The Sort Of Thing That Happens To Someone Like You something of a disappointment, albeit a well-crafted one. The stories here range vastly in style and length, from the flash-fiction of ‘Thoughtful’ to the longer stories that fill it out, but the variety isn’t quite enough to keep us interested. Instead many of the tales – for all their technical proficiency – feel more like character studies than fully-rounded tales, and the lack of narrative development makes for tough reading. Even the cursory anchoring of the stories in the same geographical map (stories are tagged with towns and villages from around the Norfolk and Cambridgeshire area) feels like a half-hearted attempt at coherence. This isn’t a collection so much as a random selection of fictional writings.

Sometimes McGregor’s technical explorations of narrative form and authorial voice overwhelm his stories, too. The awkwardly-named ‘Supplentary Notes to the Testimony of Appellants B & E’ is as dry and unappealing as it sounds, no matter how clever his use of ‘found’ documents. And the use of local dialogue and colloquial mannerisms becomes, like, increasingly irritating as the collection progresses (if you know what I mean).

What saves This Isn’t The Sort Of Thing That Happens To Someone Like You as a collection is McGregor’s ability to find drama in both the everyday and the unexpected, and at its strongest these stories have just as much impact as any of McEwan’s. ‘Wires’ stands out as the strongest of the pack, as a female driver reassesses her relationship in the wake of an automobile accident that sends a sugar beet through her windshield – but there are other high points too. One only wishes that they weren’t watered down with the slighter stories, or bogged down by the the author’s restless need to experiment.

This Isn’t The Sort Of Thing That Happens To Someone Like You is still a strong first collection from an impressive young author, but it can’t quite maintain its energy from start to finish. That it’s still one of the most exciting short story collections to emerge from the UK in recent years should be cause for concern.

This Isn’t The Sort Of Thing That Happens To Someone Like You is available now from all good bookstores, and the Bloomsbury USA website, priced $16.00.

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