Review: Jon McGregor, in conversation with Rachel Hewitt about ‘Lean Fall Stand’
Award-winning novelist Jon McGregor returns with a stunning novel that mesmerizingly and tenderly unpicks the notion of heroism and explores the indomitable human impulse to tell our stories – even when words fail us. A meditation on the line between sacrifice and selfishness this is a story of the undervalued, unrecognised courage it can take just to get through the day.
Jon started the event by sharing some photos from his trip to Antarctica, all taken from the upper deck of the ship he resided on. This trip was part of his research, in which he was hoping to be inspired by the antartic landscape. He saw icebergs, crashing waves and mountains. Unfortunately, Jon also shared an image of his boat stuck in ice, which led to the cancellation of his trip. He was on this ship for the entirety of the trip, only spending 7 hours on shore throughout a 5-week trip.
It was on this trip, however, where Jon became infatuated with language. He struggled to comprehend some of the awe-inspiring images he came across from that boat and considered how one even puts them into words. Language was inadequate in describing some of the things Jon came across, and he theorised this was due to the way language operates. He believes language is used as a tool for remembrance, and hence describing something unique, in an approachable way, seems like an impossible task.
After sharing these images, Jon gave a reading from the novel: ‘Lean, Stand, Fall’.
Language is expanded on extensively in the novel and proves a major catalyst for it’s narrative. One example would be the use of language to establish fixity on the Antarctic landscape. Thomas and Luke are tasked with having to map out this confusing and grand landscape through the use of language, something they struggle with massively. Language is quite restrictive, ‘fixing’ the crew as they attempt to describe the ever-changing landscape.
Upon exploring language, and the limitations that come with it, Jon stumbled across the condition known as ‘Aphasia’, language deficit caused by brain damage after having a stroke. It affects people’s ability to apprehend and form language. Often people are conscious of what they’re trying to say, but can’t find the words to say it, which mirrors Jon’s speechless nature whilst trying to discuss the Antarctic landscape.
This makes for a very interesting reading experience, as Jon’s use of Aphasia-centric language encourages one to read between the lines, and consider the language that characters such as Doc, who suffers from the disease, would not have been able to convey.
Jon, whilst researching Antarctic literature, often came across heroic and male-dominant language, and he was interested in creating characters that were going to see themselves as heroic and brave, which then contrast with another version of heroism and bravery, through illness, injury and recovery.
Doc, who was one of the more vocal, authoritative, dominant, male characters in the first half of the book becomes powerless, as the disease forces his wife to become his full-time carer. There’s an intriguing relationship between the two, as Doc somehow remains dominant in their relationship. Doc’s brash nature often undermimed his wife in the beginning of the novel, and now his disabled nature has somewhat disabled his wife’s life, having to look after him. Doc is unable to say the word “no” as a result of his stroke, and ironically his wife is unable to say “no” to her new responsibility as his carer.
Language is significant, as this tool that Doc used at the start of the novel to express his masculine nature is lost, as he suffers a stroke, loses his language and becomes dependent on his wife.
Towards the end of the talk, Jon answered a question from the audience:
Q: What did you know after writing this book that you didn’t know when you started it?
A: Everything about Aphasia and strokes I learned through the process of writing. Most of the stuff we spent the last half-an-hour talking about really! I knew I wanted Doc to get aphasia, and I’ve never been one for big triumphant endings, I thought there would be a recovery. Although there’s a lot people can do to re-learn language after aphasia, the damage truly is the damage, and people need to learn to adapt to this. I had to replace recovery with adaptation, which was really valuable to the writing of the book and to me. I lost part of my hearing a few years ago, and it was the first time in my life a part of my body was damaged in an irreplaceable way. It was quite a shock. That’s part of getting older, I think
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Jon McGregor is the author of five novels, including the critically acclaimed If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, So Many Ways to Begin and Even the Dogs. He is the winner of the IMPAC Dublin Literature Prize, Betty Trask Prize, and Somerset Maugham Award, and has twice been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. McGregor was runner-up for the BBC National Short Story Award in both 2010 and 2011 and is Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Nottingham.
Rachel Hewitt is a Lecturer in Creative Writing and Director of NCLA at Newcastle University, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.
Thomas Moorcroft, the author of this post, is a third year English Literature and History student currently on placement with the NCLA.