The Manchester Literature Festival Blog
Review: Jon McGregor, Reservoir 13
Tessa Harris reports from our event with novelist Jon McGregor and appreciates a new approach to the standard author event.
“One of the things for me, about this book,” Jon McGregor explains before he starts the performance “is not to explain things… to people.” He doesn’t get the laugh he deserves. The audience is mostly anxiously clutching smartphones and muttering things like I don’t have autoblock, is location security another way into the auto-block? (auto-block pronounced like we’ve never said the word out loud before) And we won’t sit in the front dear, just in case there are seventeen people who want to sit all together. We are a literature festival audience, at a Booker Prize-winning author’s reading and whatever we may be individually, as a group we are technophobic and terrified of audience participation.
We are also wrong. Both about what we are at and how hard it is going to be to enjoy ourselves. It turns out to be a simple, elegantly organised and easy to appreciate performance. There is reading involved and McGregor does read from Reservoir 13, his beautiful new book, but it quickly becomes apparent that without being exposed or endangered in any way we are participants in what turns into an intimate and immersive sound-work. Some of us, enough of us, have connected to a website, reservoir13.co.uk, via which our phones play a piece of music by Richard J. Birkin. Different strands of the music play from different phones at different times as McGregor reads and controls the music from his phone. The sound moves amongst and around and between us. Sometimes just one repetitive jingling noise is loud in your lap and sometimes there are only plaintive wisps from behind you. It is gentle and lovely.
The music is a reworking of, or response to, a Derbyshire folk song called Tip O’Derwent about a dog called Tip who won’t leave the side of her shepherd Joe. Joe falls asleep in the snow one winter and they both die, it’s very sad and very noble. In the music we hear there are no words and no melody. What we do hear has been constructed around the original and then the original has been removed, it is absent. The piece was composed by Birkin for this performance and in interaction with the book. McGregor says afterwards that the performance is very much a collaboration and that his style and selection of reading responded to the music once it had been made. Birkin has other live music performances that involve audiences reading material on their phones while music is performed publicly on stage. This performance inverts that private act in a public venue but evokes similar questions about the internal worlds we carry into the public domain.
Reservoir 13 is structured and themed in such a way that an interaction with this kind of soundscape and the roving attention it enacts is fitting if subtle. The book is also set in Derbyshire around an absence. Each short chapter or segment, only two or three pages long, is a contained fragment of each month in a thirteen year period following the disappearance of a girl. The landscape of the peaks, how the landscape moves and doesn’t, trains, wind born cement and helicopters all feature both in the book and how McGregor frames this performance for us. The absence present in the music and the absence at the centre of the story are obviously interacting. There is the inescapable movement of the narrative, the refusal to explain and the inevitable juxtapositions of images and ideas within a formally constrained work and this abridged feeling to scenes as they are described allows the music to do more than just illustrate or give atmosphere.
Reservoir 13 is concentrated not only in its segmentation and dogged movement through time but also in its short sentences, abrupt utterances and image shifts. Fragmenting it further to make this performance is as much a logical extension of its project as it is a joy to hear from within. There was a lot of explaining, of the book, of how the simple part we had to play worked and of the need for us not to be distracted by our phones during the performance. It would have been lovely to have less of that, but given how grumpy the packed audience was to start with maybe it was entirely necessary to shepherd us so closely onto the work.
Tessa Harris is a writer and poet currently at the Centre for New Writing, University of Manchester as a Commonwealth PhD candidate. She is currently researching the formal techniques used in the combinations of text and image in narrative work. She was born and raised in Windhoek, Namibia and has studied in South Africa and the UK. She has had short stories, poetry and nonfiction published in Namibia, South Africa and the UK. This piece also appears at The Manchester Review