The World is Beautiful, the World is Brutal

Reservoir 13, by British writer Jon McGregor, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, but I read it because I read somewhere that George Saunders recommended it  (Saunders’ book, Lincoln in the Bardo, ended up winning the prize). The driving theme in McGregor’s book is the disappearance of a 13-year-old girl who was visiting the Peak District, an upland area of England, with her parents (I will not spoil the ending for you). McGregor sets his narrative in this small village and treats it like a grand cinematographer. The scope of his lens travels far and wide, the way David Watkin captured the landscape in Out of Africa, or John Seale swept his camera across the desert in The English Patient. But McGregor’s lens also zooms in close to places that other writers, excepting those like Annie Dillard, would otherwise leave out: “under the ash trees the first new ferns unfurled from the cold black soil” and “after dark two of the older badgers snuck out of the sett at the top end of the beech wood, sniffing at the air before foraging across the wet soil around the edge of the abandoned lead pits, looking for the earthworms that had always been there.” The viewer gets to see everything, or at least that’s the way McGregor’s shots leave us feeling: he gives enough to stoke our imaginations so that we can fill in or wonder about whatever details are left out.

As I read, I tried to find reasons why Saunders, who I admire for his zany, imaginative narratives, might recommend this book, one reason definitely being its innovative style–I have never read a book like it.  The story is told from an omniscient perspective via a dry, matter-of-fact reportage. At least, that’s how it feels at first. McGregor splices his subtle humor in between what he chooses to report; the power of this humor builds as the reader begins to know the characters. It has no traditional dialogue and the subject matter can switch from one subject to another without any traditional form of warning–in one sentence we can be learning about an extra-marital affair; in the next we are learning what is on the television, “pictures of forests burning in Malaysia, whole hillsides stripped bare and the topsoil washing into rivers;” and then in the next we are reading about butterflies laying eggs.

There are so many butterflies laying eggs. We also learn the doings of badgers, foxes, sheep, dairy cows and blackbirds. Oh, and humans. An epigraph by Wallace Stevens sets the tone: “The river is moving. The blackbird must be flying.” McGregor is a naturalist; his prose functions as an equalizer between the natural and human world. Here is another detail about McGregor’s writing that I imagine Saunders might admire about him, because I know Saunders to be a student of Buddhism. His writing is a like a flat acknowledgement of the Buddhist notion that everything is interconnected, via an exposition more scientific than mystical, by proxy of what (and how) he chooses to write.

Each chapter tells of the seasons passing, year after year. Through his narrative treatment of  humans the reader may infer McGregor’s philosophical leanings. The world is beautiful and brutal in equal turns. McGregor offers sparse physical descriptions, but we know details like “he had a rough strength that was nothing to do with the gym and a ropy tension in his arms.”

Whatever the details, natural or human, the reader scours them for clues about the missing girl. Who got her? Or was it an accident? The natural surroundings can be precarious, especially for a tourist. There are caves to get lost in, holes to fall in, peat bogs to disappear into. Amidst the human world, there are obvious and not-so-obvious suspects. My mind wandered far and wide, following the divers who swam deep into the reservoirs and the gamekeepers as they burned off the heather. McGregor has his reader looking for clues in every word. And there are many words to decipher, due to the setting–weirs and cloughs, allotments and  bacon cobs–unfamiliar words in a setting that becomes intimately familiar. Every year there is a well dressing, which is never explicitly explained, except to say that it involves boards being covered in clay so that designs may be outlined on them and then made from flower petals. Further research reveals it is an annual decoration of a water source, possibly a pagan tradition, most commonly celebrated among villages in Derbyshire, England.

“The missing girl’s name was Rebecca, or Becky, or Bex,” McGregor repeats throughout the book. “She had been thirteen at the time of her disappearance. She’d been wearing a white hooded top with a navy-blue body-warmer, black jeans, and canvas shoes. She would be taller than five feet now, and her hair may have altered in both style and color.”

There are many possibilities, as in the game of Clue that I adored as a child. As I compiled these details, I also got to know the characters and understand their complexities, which are revealed throughout the duration of the narrative. A vicar, a school janitor, a womanizer, a potter, a newspaper editor, a yoga teacher, a housekeeper. The town  family who raised sheep; the man who raised the dairy cows. I came to expect their behavioral patterns, predictable like the weather and the seasons. I felt like I lived in this village. More importantly, I felt my lens opening far and wide on my own life, then zooming in to all of the details. McGregor’s deceptively simple technique causes the reader to feel endearingly connected, and yet, there is this reality, which Geoff Manaugh writes about the disappearance of a man in Joshua Tree:

There is an unsettling truth often revealed by search-and-rescue operations: Every landscape reveals more of itself as you search it. The mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot once observed that the British coastline can never be fully mapped because the more closely you examine it — not just the bays, but the inlets within the bays, and the streams within the inlets — the longer the coast becomes.

No wonder McGregor casts such a wide, all-seeing perspective. These missing-person cases, these disappearances,  they are like the black holes of daily life, reminders that all around us, at all times, is loss and the many possibilities for it. McGregor fills in the details of this perilous landscape that is life, leaving cloughs that we must carefully navigate for ourselves.

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