I have been thinking lately of a verdict given to the adult world by a young girl in Rebecca West’s The Fountain Overflows. “Mary had once said … that the adjectives which really suited grown-ups were ‘lily-livered’ and ‘chicken-hearted.’ ” At the risk of making a disputable comment, I wonder if, compared to the West characters from a century ago, we may be more than ever afflicted by this disease of lily-livered-ness and chickenheartedness, at least in our literary taste. Oftentimes a reviewer feels the urge to warn the readers that such and such a book is “not for the fainthearted”—as though it’s literature’s job to put a cautious finger on the readers’ pulses. Woe to those sacrificed maidens in Greek tragedies and lopped-off heads in Shakespeare plays that fail to bear a sign: TRIGGER WARNING.
The Greeks and Shakespeare, of course, are still being read, perhaps for the reason that it’s easy to forget that they wrote about real people who once lived. Thank goodness we have books like Jon McGregor’s Even the Dogs, a reminder that true literature does not avert its eyes from anything difficult.
The novel is narrated by a group of characters, some named, others unseen but to themselves. Together they are known—because society must offer a label for them—as drug addicts, alcoholics, and homeless people. It may be easy to compare the group “we” to the chorus in a Greek tragedy, but the novel does not allow the readers to find a retreat in the realm of myths, fairy tales, or fantasies. We are, of course, familiar with the gritty and gory images, which are often seen these days on screen—with perfect makeup and the right music so well done that the audience can keep an aesthetic and psychological distance. But McGregor’s novel, with its uncompromising gaze at unadorned details of life and death, eliminates that safe distance between the characters and the readers. Who can say he or she is guaranteed to be free from the characters’ fates? A reader who waves a white flag of lily-livered-ness and chickenheartedness even before opening the book, perhaps.
Even the Dogs opens on a winter day when a body is discovered in an unheated flat. The novel unfolds as the narrators follow the body from the flat to the mortuary, watch it being examined by the coroner and then prepared for cremation, and, holding a wake while remaining entirely invisible to the world, search in their own muddled minds for clarity. The only character who progresses lineally in time is the body, as the dead no longer has the means to change his own destination. This reliable odyssey anchors the readers as it anchors the narrators, whose relationship with time is much murkier. But that, even for those in the direst situation, is a privilege. Time works magic—a cliché, yet time, for the living characters as well as the readers, does hold the unexpected and the unreliable: it circles, superimposes, inlays, and traverses back and forth in years. Like memory, but even less subjected to anyone’s control.
The setting of the novel is an unspecified city in England, but it may as well be set in a town in Ohio or on a street in Chicago. No one needs a passport or a legal document to cross the border between hope and despair, between forgetting and remembering, between life and death, or, perhaps more relevant for the characters (and the readers, too), between desire and addiction. So often addiction is portrayed as a result of poverty or hopelessness, or, in kinder hands, a mental illness. McGregor has not limited himself to those easy answers. He has shown something else—messier, yet more intense—at work: the desire to feel. Can any reader look into his or her own mind and deny the presence of that desire entirely?
Even the Dogs deservedly won the International Dublin Literary Award in 2012. One can go on talking about McGregor’s other brilliant books, including his latest, Reservoir Thirteen. But what strikes me most is his intelligence, which one senses vividly in his prose, and his empathy, which he’s given entirely to his characters, rather than to, say, the readers or the publishers. That, to my mind, makes a superb writer rather than a gifted caterer.
Yiyun Li is the author of five works of fiction—Where Reasons End, Kinder Than Solitude, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, The Vagrants, and Gold Boy, Emerald Girl—and the memoir Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life. She is the recipient of many awards, including a PEN/Hemingway Award and a MacArthur Foundation fellowship. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, A Public Space, The Best American Short Stories, and The O. Henry Prize Stories, among other publications. She teaches at Princeton University and lives in Princeton, New Jersey. Her new novel, Must I Go, is forthcoming from Random House on July 28, 2020.
Introduction to Jon McGregor’s Even the Dogs © 2020 Yiyun Li, used by permission of the Wylie Agency LLC