In the unnerving first chapter of Jon McGregor’s Even the Dogs, the body of an almost forgotten man is found lying dead in his sitting room. Watching the police puzzle over the scene are the man’s friends, also dead. Through their eyes, McGregor juxtaposes the hopeless macabre scene with the hopefulness of the past. Here, Robert bloated and smelling on his floor. There, Robert moving in with his wife Yvonne. Here, molded walls and empty beer cans, “crumbs of comfort scattering across the floor”; there, a recently papered bathroom and the promising orderliness of a new flat. Yesterday’s sun. Today’s “bruised purple sky.” The contrast rendered by McGregor is stark and telling. But even during the flashbacks to better times, the premonitions of Robert’s demise appear: as the couple celebrates the start of their life with a bath, “peppered spores of mould thicken and spread towards the ceiling.” This doesn’t end well. Yvonne is gone, Robert is dead, and his helpless ghost-friends can only watch and record.
For the duration of this short novel, these ghosts play the collective narrator, witnessing the banal indignities that accompany Robert as his remains are processed through the investigation, autopsy, and final inquest. Along the way, they recall Robert’s past as well as their own. And while Robert’s cold bureaucratic funeral ultimately sheds little light on the meaning of his death, McGregor brings emotion and humanity back to Robert’s life and the tragic lives of his friends, offering a compelling look into a community of heroin addicts.
Some critics bill this novel as one of redemption (or “half redemption” as the back cover claims). By fleshing out the all-too-human lives of these heroin addicts with a hard but understanding touch, McGregor is seen as reclaiming their dignity, redeeming their shadowed lives in the process. I don’t see it that way. Redemption is a thing granted the past, always with an eye to the future. Robert and his friends are dead and have no future. This is not a novel about overcoming or persevering, for the victories (and it’s debatable whether there is anything remotely resembling victory here) are fleeting, and the lives are failed. Can there be redemption in retrospect? The characters’ lives do not unravel in order to be put together again. Nor is this simply a story of unraveling like that offered in Requiem for a Dream, to which the book has been compared. It is something altogether different. The deaths are the beginnings and the end for McGregor. The lives are neither redeemed nor reassessed. They are remembered, and they remain unchanged by the telling of the story.
In an exercise of fragmented remembering, McGregor takes the reader inside the world of heroin users, behind the curtained windows and boarded doors. It is when describing the minor indignities of the addicts’ lives that the novel is at its most effective. These lives involve nagging injuries, troubled relationships, fraught interactions with social service agencies, a general invisibility, and a lot of waiting around. Driven by a focused desire to find the next high, McGregor’s characters suffer these humiliations with an admirable stoicism. The contradictions involved in their frantic waiting are conveyed brilliantly in the novel’s second chapter, which follows Danny, one of Robert’s few surviving friends, who, having discovered Robert’s body before anyone else, begins a harried, simultaneous search for his next high and someone to tell. Through his clipped sentences and swallowed words, the reader feels the fierce urgency propelling the addict forward. It is frustrating to read and that’s the whole point.
This visceral novel is not for the fainthearted. But for those who can stomach the injections and the autopsy, it readily rewards the dogged reader with a sympathetic, yet unforgiving depiction of a sort of modern existence frequently ignored. If I were to offer any critique it is of the stereotypical biographies McGregor gives his characters. Here are the war vet, the foster kid, and the schizophrenic, whose typically horrific paths lead them to drug addiction. Perhaps this obviousness is the point, for the novel does reclaim these figures from a superficiality born of familiarity. But I couldn’t help wishing McGregor would apply his prodigious creativity and detailed eye to the task of creating for his characters less obvious pasts.
This aside, the novel is powerful and well worth the investment. It’s a brisk 200 pages, but the reader is so intensely immersed that anything longer might have been exhausting and undoubtedly would have compromised the frenzied emotion at the novel’s core. When all is said and done, this is a novel about community. Nothing conveys this more than McGregor’s repeated adoption of the first person plural. Like all communities, it is fucked up, formed out of necessity, self-interest, survival. There are many deceptions, tensions, fights over money and drugs. But there are powerful moments of intimacy, found curiously and most readily in the depictions of Robert and his friends lovingly injecting each other with heroin. McGregor invites us to become part of their “we,” a membership that brings sorrow and disappointment, but ultimately insight.