Left: Jon McGregor. Right: George Saunders.
Jon McGregor is a fiercely intelligent, very deep well of an (English) human and writer. I’ve spent some of my most memorable moments in that country on stages with Jon, benefitting from the original and soulful way he thinks and talks about fiction. I’ve recently spent a similarly memorable and transcendent moment with him via his astonishing new novel, Reservoir 13—a strange, daring, and very moving book. For me, fiction is here to create a compressed, distorted scale model that helps us see the real world anew. Reservoir 13 does this, and in a truly original way—its scale and the way time works within it combine to mimic, with rare fidelity, the way things are in reality, and the way real life, lived, actually feels. And it is this fidelity that, paradoxically, allows us to see how very weird and impermanent and unreliable and unreal so-called reality is. The book is a rare and dazzling feat of art that also (in my reading of it) outs us, in a gentle way, for a certain gratuitous drama-seeking tendency we all tend to have as readers—a tendency that makes it harder to see the very real, consequential, beautiful, and human-scaled dramas occurring all around us in real life, in every moment (in nature, in human affairs).
I spoke with Jon on a good, old-fashioned landline; I was calling from Corralitos, California, and I imagined him (in spite of the fact that he told me very clearly that he was in his office, in the university where he teaches, in Nottingham) sitting in a pub in an archetypal English village like the one described in the book—a village that is still haunting me, and which, because of the rich detail of the prose, I feel I’ve lived in before, and for which, on closing the book, I found myself homesick.
Now, let me just say you did something really innovative to my reading in terms of suspense. There’s something that drives us through the book—I think it’s sometimes called a MacGuffin, you know, the thing we’re supposed to be concerned with. But in the meantime, real life is playing out in this village at just the scale and pace that life actually plays out. We fall in love with the town. We fall in love with the people. And although there are incidents, they’re human-scaled. Do you agree with me that this is really a radical subversion of the tyranny of plot? How did that idea work its way into the book?