Only fourteen words into Jon McGregor’s second novel, So Many Ways to Begin, we’re off to the races with an armload of questions in desperate need of answers: “Eleanor was in the kitchen when he got back from her mother’s funeral, baking.”
He returned from her mother’s funeral? One might even wonder if this is a typo. Perhaps it should read his mother’s funeral instead?
The not-knowing sets up a series of questions that are meant to propel the reader forward for the next four-hundred pages: Why didn’t Eleanor go to her own mother’s funeral? Why did he go instead? This ability to begin with a bang is McGregor’s strength–his heart-wrenching, bicycle-crash opening in If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things launches readers into the novel with such power that the rest of the narrative struggles to live up to the promise.
Though McGregor’s second novel wrestles with similar demons, the prose is not one of them. McGregor has structured his novel via chapters titled to reflect the artifacts David examines as a museum curator, and, as in McGregor’s previous work, there are pitch-perfect moments of observation and insight where the artifact-as-story structure proves successful. While looking over a “list of household items” with marks through the “gotten” items David muses on his mother:
This is the sort of person his mother was, he thought whenever he looked again at the list, when he imagined her reinventing her family’s life in that way, with a new child, a new house, a new city outside waiting to be rebuilt. This was what he would tell anyone who asked, showing them the yellowed sheet of paper, my mother wanted all these things for us, and look how much of it she got.
It is in these moments, where the prose is crisp and the characters vulnerable, that McGregor’s ode to identity and what it means to live in this world among truths and untruths, among the planned and the unplanned moments in life, has room to breathe. At its best, So Many Ways to Begin reads like a thoughtful meditation on identity that chases some intriguing questions: What does identity mean when it is based on the stories that others tell us about ourselves? What happens to identity when the storytellers are revealed as frauds? McGregor even uses David’s efforts to tell his own tale as clever way to comment on the wider role of storytelling. Unfortunately, among the bric-a-brac of David’s many artifacts there simply isn’t enough room to give proper consideration to the bigger questions McGregor’s novel raises about living with grave disappointment and how a life can have, yes, so many different beginnings.
Onerous backstories form part of the problem. While we’re still wondering about why David went to Eleanor’s mother’s funeral, McGregor takes us back to the very beginning, where we learn of David’s early childhood and his dreams of curating a museum. He discovers his first “artifacts” in his own yard. He visits museums at every opportunity and dutifully records every “find” in his notebook for future reference. He becomes exasperated when he learns that a particular boat in the maritime museum is a replica, not the real deal.
And he’d gone back to the display board, and read the last short paragraph explaining who’d built the replica and how, and he’d wanted to kick the whole thing to pieces. It didn’t mean anything, he told Julia later. It wasn’t real, it was made up. You can’t learn anything about history by looking at made-up things, he said, talking quickly and urgently. It’s stupid, it’s not fair. It’s a lie, he said. They’re lying.
Eventually David’s path crosses Eleanor’s, and when McGregor gets around to Eleanor’s difficult childhood and her abusive mother, a possible reason for Eleanor’s absence at her mother’s funeral is revealed. But this insight is doled out halfway through the book.
Another issue is that the preceding pages document disappointment after disappointment, a piling on of sadness that seems heavy enough to weigh down even the most optimistic reader. The abusive mother, her failed attempts to attend university, Eleanor’s crumbling relationship with David, Eleanor’s inability to hold down a job–her increasing agoraphobia for God’s sake!–it seems things simply must get better, but they never do. The big reveal of Eleanor’s abusive mother is not a large enough reward for plodding through the dreariness.
Such misery would be powerful if the characters were fully realized; instead, McGregor’s characters feel too distant. The device of delivering plot through long-forgotten artifacts may be novel, but it feels flat. McGregor tells the stories of things in order to reveal the stories of people, and the transference doesn’t always work. Instead of giving us vivid characters that one can root for, McGregor has set up a fuzzy game of tin-can telephone relay, his words not delivered firsthand but rather through a cold, antiquated mechanism.
In an early passage, McGregor deftly outlines the key struggle David faces and in doing so, both defines and resolves the central dilemma of the novel:
Lives were changed and moved by much smaller cues, chance meetings, over-heard conversations, the trips and stumbles which constantly alter and readjust the course of things, history made by a million fractional moments too numerous to calibrate or observe or record. The real story, he knew, was more complicated than anything he could gather together in a pair of photo albums and a scrapbook and drive across the country to lay out on a table somewhere. The whole story would take a lifetime to tell. But what he had would be a start, he thought, a way to begin.
Unfortunately, this dazzling moment occurs in the first quarter of the book, rendering everything that follows excessive, unnecessary. Frustrating. It is as if McGregor is the unwitting curator who is so enamored with all the things he has gathered and wants to share that he is unable to edit his prized collection, incapable of winnowing it down to the few artifacts that would tell the most powerful story.
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