Ever since Coleridge sent the storm-tossed Ancient Mariner sailing past the “snowy clifts” of Antarctica, and Mary Shelley cast Victor Frankenstein among the ice floes of the extreme north, writers have turned to the barren beauty of the polar regions to invoke nature at its most brutal, mysterious and sublime.
Jon McGregor is the latest novelist to venture into this frozen wasteland. His new book, Lean Fall Stand, opens in the remote reaches of Antarctica, where a three-man team is conducting a geological survey. Robert “Doc” Wright, the de facto leader, has 30 years of Antarctic experience, while his two colleagues, Thomas Myers and Luke Adebayo, are postdoctoral research scientists on their first mission.
Thomas is a keen photographer and Doc and Luke join him on an off-duty photographic expedition. Doc, sceptical of Thomas’s ability to capture the immensity of the landscape, climbs a nearby crag in order to provide a focal point for the shot. While Thomas is setting up his camera, a violent storm erupts, and the men are separated.
Whatever doubts Doc may have about Thomas’s visual record, the reader will have none about McGregor’s verbal one. After a luminous description of the glacial terrain, both cinematic and poetic, he offers a harrowing account of men at the mercy of the elements. This section has an almost Conradian power: “His hands felt loose inside his gloves. The scree felt slippery beneath him. He could feel the edge of the ridge against his waist, his legs hanging in the air. He pressed himself flatter against the rock, working his weight further forwards.”
In the immediate aftermath of the storm, Doc suffers a stroke, which severely impairs his cognitive ability and prevents him from carrying out the standard emergency procedures, with fatal results. McGregor’s supreme achievement in the novel is his intimate portrait of aphasia, starting at the moment that Doc first feels its effects: “He rawed the rum nubness of his face. No. Rubbed. Rubbed the rum rawness. No.”
The remainder of the book focuses on the consequences of the stroke, initially from the perspective of Robert’s wife, Anna. She travels to the Santiago hospital to which he has been airlifted and, as she sits by his bedside, she broods on the irrevocable transformation of her life. Their marriage has been predicated on Robert’s annual absences in Antarctica, which have permitted her to concentrate on her own academic work. Now, as she privately admits to her closest friend, Bridget: “I don’t know if I want him to come home.”
Robert is brought back to England, first to hospital and then home. McGregor allows himself a rare moment of humour in his depiction of the transportation process when, after carrying Robert upstairs, the drivers ask Anna to fill in several forms: “It was like signing for a package. I have inspected the merchandise and it was delivered in an undamaged condition.” She is left alone to look after her intransigent, incontinent husband, with the sporadic assistance of a care worker who, following welfare cuts, can spend no longer than 14 minutes per patient.
On the advice of a speech therapist, Robert and Anna join a stroke support group. The convener Amira, a former actress, experiments with various unorthodox techniques, including inviting a trio of dancers to a session in a bid to show the sufferers the possibilities of non-verbal communication. She even persuades them to put on a public performance, the centrepiece of which is Robert’s re-enactment of his ordeal in the storm.
This final section of the novel is the least successful. In works such as If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things (2002) and Reservoir 13 (2017), McGregor has shown himself a master of multi-viewpoint narrative, but his touch here is less controlled. The shift in focus between the various group members is clumsy, and his depiction of Amira’s methods and concerns somewhat flat.
Far more impressive is his recreation of the individual stroke victims’ speech patterns. McGregor’s great skill is to reveal the internal logic behind their apparent incoherence, as when Raymond, an electrician, attributes a scar to “Trick trick. Tricity, that’s right, yes,” and Mary, a racehorse trainer, names Shakespeare’s wife as “Annie and away we go to the wall to the wall”.
Above all, this is a novel about language: how we fail it as much as it fails us. On the first page, Doc, buffeted by the storm, recalls how “he had heard this described as like being inside a jet engine. As though people knew what being inside a jet engine was like. People said these things, but the words didn’t always fit.” Likewise, Andreas, a hotel worker, asks Anna if she has enjoyed her stay in Chile, only to apologise on realising that she spent it entirely at her husband’s sickbed. “‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘My thinking is pre-empted by my speaking, sometimes.’”
Lean Fall Stand is an antidote to all such lazy thinking. McGregor’s precise, well-judged prose attests both to the power of language and to the havoc created by its loss.
Lean Fall Stand by Jon McGregor, 4th Estate RRP£14.99/Catapult RRP$26, 288 pages
Michael Arditti is author of ‘The Anointed’, published by Arcadia Books
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