The hit crime mystery Reservoir 13 confirmed that Nottingham novelist Jon McGregor knew his way around a gripping page-turner. But with Lean Fall Stand he takes on a more profound challenge; the language and thought processes of a brain in crisis.
Field researchers Luke, Thomas and veteran guide Robert ‘Doc’ Wright are caught up in a perilous expedition in Antarctica. The third-person narrative which describes their plight is, like them, focused, lucid and concise. But when the men are separated and panic sets in, the prose begins to unravel, repeat, and lose its bearings, like an E.E Cummings poem in which the words slip off the page. “He rawed the rum nubness of his face.” “He sat and the colour fall. Music.”
This is the literary version of deep immersion; in a blood-freezing, snow-blinding environment, the writing itself begins to disintegrate. In a location defined by its isolation, in which instruments of communication are constantly tested, speech is rendered useless. “Stay here. Be serve. Preserve.” It makes for an unsettling, strangely exciting reading experience, a bit like watching a Charlie Kaufman movie in an IMAX.
As it turns out, Doc has suffered a stroke. Upon returning home to his anxious and long-adrift family, he has to learn a new way of living, and he goes through waves of frustration and epiphany as he is trained to walk, speak and distinguish memory from dream. This domestic battle proves more testing than any challenge he has faced in the world’s most hostile environment, a landscape which has become more familiar to him than his children’s faces. Lost at home, his daily tasks mirror his trials in Antarctica, from his long, painful trek to the bathroom to the infuriating inability of his broken equipment to communicate what he wants for lunch.
The ‘what really happened out there’ mystery is attended to, but more interesting is the story of Doc’s rehabilitation, as a man, husband and father. And McGregor is canny enough not to use Doc’s self-sufficient, newly burdened wife Anna simply as a cypher for his fraught climb out of chaos, but to give her space to question her own response and, when she needs to, scream into her own void.
Lean Fall Stand by Jon McGregor is out now (HarperCollins, £14.99)