In 2017, the odd and wonderful British novelist Jon McGregor told a Guardian interviewer he had an "antipathy towards 'big drama.'" His dislike of showiness seems coherent with the book he'd then just released, the unmissably good Reservoir 13, which takes place over the span of 13 years and is collectively narrated by the inhabitants of a rural English town, including the birds and animals living in its hedges. At first glance, though, McGregor's newest novel, Lean Fall Stand, is about as big-drama as a book can get. It opens in the middle of a freak Antarctic ice storm; its hero, a career expedition guide named Doc Wright, has gotten separated from Luke and Thomas, the two young mapping experts in his care. Nobody can see, none of their radios are working, their satellite phones are dead, and, worst of all, something is going haywire in Doc's head. He's switching words up. By the time the storm ends, his ability to use language has collapsed.
McGregor renders this drama and its fallout, which occupies the majority of the novel, in his habitually spare prose. He is one of the few great living minimalists, able to mix deep pathos with wry comedy in a sentence too short to need a single comma. His work bears a certain resemblance to the laconically off-kilter Joy Williams, but seems more deeply influenced by the stutter-step repetitions and evasions common to everyday speech. Often in Lean Fall Stand, his sentences seem less to follow in sequence than to be shingled atop each other, either sharing or hiding meaning. Sometimes, McGregor draws a little blood with this habit; it is impossible not to loathe the research-institute functionary who delivers bad news by saying somebody has "very unfortunately passed, which is, passed away." More often, however, McGregor leaves readers little choice but to sympathize with his evasive speakers. Lean Fall Stand is, after all, a novel largely about aphasia: The stroke Doc suffers during the ice storm leaves his ability to communicate radically diminished. McGregor never blames the characters around him — least of all his long-suffering wife Anna — for not having a clue what to say.
Lean Fall Stand has an omniscient narrator, but that narrator spends the novel's whole middle section either in Anna's head or hovering just above her. Her inner conflict is the book's thorniest set of emotions. She has no desire to take care of her recovering husband; she was never even sure she wanted to be a wife — but she loves Doc, and what can she do besides help him? McGregor conveys the wearying weight of her responsibilities in an endless-seeming march of sentences that all begin with the same phrase: "She had to change the bedsheets in the morning because he made a mess of using the pan. She had to help him roll out of the bed and lever himself into the chair. She had to put a towel on the armchair because his pyjamas were still wet," and so on. All those she-had-tos are tiring to read, and rightly so. Repetition, here, conveys Anna's exhaustion more effectively than any detailed description could.
Still, Lean Fall Stand is at its weakest, though by no means weak, in Anna's section, which never quite rises out of ambivalent-wife tropes. Her hesitant loyalty to her husband becomes too much the book's guiding spirit — and it is an affecting one, but not necessarily urgent. McGregor raises no real question of what Anna will do; she may long for a different life, but her longing, to borrow a phrase from Vivian Gornick, is "an act of nostalgia, not of discovery." In contrast, Lean Fall Stand's final section, in which Doc joins an aphasia support group of sorts, is all about discovery, as was his Antarctic career. McGregor guides Doc gingerly through his reacquisition of language, both verbal and non-; conversation becomes, metaphorically speaking, a slippery peak to ascend, infinitely more intimidating than the literal glaciers Doc once climbed. If this is a broader comment on the pitfalls of communication, McGregor is wise enough not to overstate the idea. Every sentence in Lean Fall Stand serves, in its style, as a quiet reminder of how difficult it can be to represent ourselves to others. No need to make the point loudly, too.
Besides, Lean Fall Stand is more optimistic about communication than one might expect. McGregor's characters may rarely have a clue "what to say, or how to say it," but, fumblingly, they try. Doc's efforts to make himself understood become the book's great drama, more exciting by far than his Antarctic career. Antarctica, as the young mapping expert Luke grouses at the book's start, can be "pure boring ... once you were done looking, the actual experience of being here day after day after day was kind of long." Of course, the same is true of being inside one's own head. Personhood, basically, is dull. How, besides communicating with each other, is anyone supposed to get a break?
Lily Meyer is a writer and translator living in Cincinnati, Ohio.