|Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor|
There are thirteen reservoirs in the moors above the village in central England near which a thirteen-year-old girl disappears, reservoirs that must be continually monitored and repaired if they are to continue their function and withstand the effects of time. The girl separates from her parents and disappears. Reservoir 13 seems at first as if it might be going to be a sort of thriller, but if it is a thriller it is an infinitely dissipated thriller, a thriller infinitely slowed (the book is thirteen years long without any resolution for the fate of the missing girl). The mode of expectation built in the reader, however, cannot be discharged, the suspense of a thriller is not lessened but transposed, heightening our awareness of every detail of this novel, this archive of the minutiae of human behaviour and of the natural world, this essay in the great, awful equivalence of all things, in which each breakfast, the behaviour of each bird is freighted with significance, but not with the sort of significance from which plot is usually built. Not only is this book a thriller that overturns the expectations of a thriller while still achieving the effects upon the reader of a thriller, it is a novel that overturns the expectations of a novel (plot, protagonists, ‘viewpoint’, shape, interiority, &c) while achieving the effects upon the reader of a novel. Written scrupulously in the flat, detached, austere tone of reportage, infinitely patient but with implacable momentum, a slow mill grinding detail out of circumstance, a forensic dossier on English rurality, the novel is comprised of detail after detail of the human, animal and vegetative life in a small rural community over thirteen years. The narrative, so to call it, shifts, within paragraphs, from subject to subject, or, rather, from object to object (there is an ambiguity of agency to the term ‘subject’), the persons, the nature, the seasons all particles borne on and changed by the awful impersonal force of time. McGregor’s swift, precise sentences heighten our awareness and make every detail, every observation first beautiful and then, cumulatively, horrific, with the horror of time passing, of the great destructive central force of nature that is time. Time suffocates the mystery of the girl’s disappearance, and, in McGregor’s forensic description, everyday life and the rhythms of nature of a community in which a crime may have been committed become more terrifying than the possible crime itself, whatever it may have been. Each detail is indeed a clue, but not a clue towards the solution of a crime so much as a clue towards understanding the kind of world in which this crime, whatever it was, if a crime was committed, a crime against a young woman, even a child, could be committed, and in which such a crime seems to have no real consequences. The crime may be submerged beneath the accretion of quotidian concerns but the increasingly panic-inducing alertness for clues spreads out upon the whole countryside and the whole community, infecting them with suspicion, even culpability for unspecified and even indefinable crimes, for guilt is not predicated upon crime. McGregor writes with terrible understatement, cumulatively insinuating suspicion and distaste upon his characters. We are first drawn in, then repelled, then detached. As detail is heaped upon detail, as the narrative focus becomes more and more diffuse, as each season is repeated, as the characters move closer to and further away from each other, as agency is grasped at and relinquished, as time deprives them of their situations and capacities, as the tone of the novel becomes flatter, if possible, as the events, such as they are, become less and less interesting, largely through repetition, certainly less and less consequential, the reader is not bored, as might be expected, but more and more fascinated and appalled, caught in the awful forward, or, worse, circular motion, not wanting to miss a word, a sentence, a clue to what becomes an existential crime. The guilt for every disappearance, for all harm, for all loss, for each act done or not done, lies with time. Everything will be erased. Everything will be lost, but, even worse, everything will continue.