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Landscapes/Cityscapes Situational Identity in British Literature and Visual Arts (20th-21st Centuries)
Landscapes of the common

Diffracted Landscapes of Attention: Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13

Capter les paysages de l’attention : R13 de Jon McGregor
Jean-Michel Ganteau


Avec Reservoir 13 (2017), Jon McGregor cultive l’attention à l’ordinaire et poursuit son offensive contre le personnage. Il en profite également pour mettre à mal les conventions de la pastorale et du paysage, au son des mines qui font exploser les parois de la carrière, quelque part au-dessus du village anonyme dans lequel se situe l’action du récit. Le roman semble par ailleurs s’ouvrir sur une intrigue policière pour mieux utiliser cette convention comme leurre, préférant se concentrer sur les rythmes naturels et les activités humaines et animales dont l’évocation récurrente est régulièrement ponctuée par le souvenir d’une adolescente de treize ans disparue dans les collines. Cet article se propose de montrer comment l’évocation du lieu rejette les conventions de la distance et de l’objectification pour mieux ménager une perspective phénoménologique (Omhovère). En optant pour les menues perceptions de l’ordinaire et du quotidien, il évite toute tentative de totalisation associée à la représentation traditionnelle du paysage et figure un champ de possibilités favorisant le mouvement et la mutabilité (Berberich, Campbell and Hudson). Les objets et composants non humains peuplant le paysage créent un espace relationnel qui est à la fois le produit et la condition d’un paysage expressif animé par la vibrance (Bennett) de l’eau, des minéraux, des fleurs et des arbres. La logique paratactique et le refus de toute hiérarchie et causalité exigent une attention aux singularités qui promeut la lenteur et rappelle au lecteur que l’attention est au cœur de la responsabilité (Foley Sherman).

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1Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13 (2017) leaves the urban and suburban settings of his previous novels to nod at the rural locales that provide the backdrop of some of the short stories in This Isn’t the Sort of Thing that Happens to Someone like You (2013). Even the Dogs (2011), his preceding novel, had left the reader stranded in the ghostly suburban space of an unnamed city in the North of England, where a choir of disincarnated narrators had just paid their posthumous duties to a departed friend at the end of a harrowing vigil cum pilgrimage. The new novel is likewise informed by the painful, repetitive evidence of a central loss: that of a thirteen-year-old girl who disappeared into the countryside, on New Year’s Eve, never to emerge again. Like Even the Dogs, the narrative reverberates with the spectral symptoms of what is presented as a collective trauma, with recurrent counter-factual sightings of the missing girl, taking place years after she disappeared, apparitions and other types of snares that have led one of the early reviewers to assert that ‘this isn’t a crime mystery brimming with red herrings but a novel in which the crime-mystery apparatus is itself the red herring’ (Kemp). As underlined by most commentators, the novel is characterised by its repetitiveness, both thematic (as the village rituals are given pride of place) and poetic (as underlined by the rhyme-like recurrence of sentences) (Hadley, Kemp). This enhances the spectral radiations and problematises the conventional way of building up narrative momentum by ‘taking us into another type of novel altogether’ (Hadley). In Reservoir 13, it seems as if McGregor were banking up on his exploration of how to diffract characterization enacted in Even the Dogs so as to make an onslaught on plot dynamics. Eschewing any tangibly linear progression, and miles away from the detective model that it originally seems to emulate, the narrative moves on in ceaselessly renewed waves that lap up a myriad vignettes of rural life onto the ubiquitous yet invisible shores of the eponymous reservoir. Such a multiple, fragmented evocation of the landscape is mediated through an impersonal narrator whose voice absconds behind that of the characters and who often lends substantiality to the collective expression of the community of villagers. It also depends on a paradoxical type of focalization that could technically accommodate the bird’s eye view but prefers to multiply ground-level delegation to an embodied or an excarnated observer, either individual or collective. This is indicated by Tessa Hadley who remarks that ‘the eye of the story keeps its remote omniscient distance; it’s a cold camera-eye, or the eye of a hawk circling above the village, assembling everything impartially, not taking sides’ (Hadley). With the double restriction that if there is distance, it is mixed with close ups; that the long shots are juxtaposed, never cohering into any panorama, let alone landscape in the traditional acceptation of the term; and that the omniscience is feigned and nipped in the bud, as access to any type of superior knowledge is compromised and negated throughout.

2With Reservoir 13, McGregor once again focusses on the microscopic and the ordinary, on the ‘luminous dignity of the everyday’ (O’Donnell), in faithfulness to the vein privileged in his earlier production. After exploding the conventions of plot progression and character construction, it goes on to dynamite the conventional image of the English rolling landscape, as originally determined by Henry Peacham, the supposed father of the English landscape, with its Arcadian associations extolling the virtues of rustic life, that ‘inventory of the standard features of the humanist happy valley’ (Schama 10–11), providing a ‘unit of human occupation’ (Schama 9) seen from a distant higher ground. Rather, the landscapes that McGregor engages with are the sites of tensions of the type pinpointed by John Wylie: between nature and culture, clearly, but also between observation and inhabitation (3), field science and human quality, the land and the eye (8). The English landscape that the anonymous village and its whereabouts call forth evokes a world dominated by a phenomenological perspective: in its lines, self and landscape are intertwined and the latter is ‘defined in terms of embodied practices’ (Wylie 14). In other terms, to take up Claire Omhovère’s phrase, McGregor’s evocations may suggest that ‘there is no landscape but for a subject’ (8; translation mine).

3In the following pages, bearing in mind McGregor’s methodical yet discreet experimental persuasion, I address his way of fashioning the literary conventions of landscape evocation by focusing first on the refusal of distance, secondly on the quest for the invisible, and thirdly on the ascendance of relationality. Throughout, I engage with various modalities of attentiveness presented and performed by the narrative.

4That characterisation is one of the novel’s main grounds of experimentation brooks little ambiguity. As indicated by one of the reviewers,

[m]any are recurring characters, not fully developed in the usual sense, but skilfully realised nonetheless. They emerge in glancing encounters, the narrative’s perspective slipping unobtrusively among them. The effect is cumulative and subtle, leaving us with a precisely calibrated sense of familiarity. These are people we might see on the school run or speak to while queueing at the post office. We can only glimpse their inner lives, guess at their secrets. (O’Donnell)

5In fact, each one of the thirteen chapters alludes to most of the characters, with some additions as a handful of newcomers, like Susanna Wright and her two teenage children, settle in the village; or subtractions, as when young people go away to university, or some people disappear for some time. This is for instance the case with Jones, the school help, who is sent to prison after illegal pornographic material has been found on his computer. The reader follows the ebb and flow of everyday life, becoming entangled with the handful of teenagers who knew the lost girl on whose disappearance the plot (or absence thereof) hinges (or rather spreads out). There are also the parents of the lost girl, city dwellers who cling to the village and are glimpsed at from time to time, and the locals: the minister, Jane, who plays a knitting function, visiting most families or speaking with most individuals in the area; Irene, the cleaner, who has raised her handicapped son on her own; Miss Dale and Miss Simpson, the teachers at the elementary school; Jeff Symons, the potter; Richard Clark who visits his ageing mother once a year and meets up with his former love Cathy; the Jackson family and the Jackson boys, who have always been raising sheep on the family estate and start thinking of moving to Australia for economic reasons; and a host of other characters. Each one of the thirteen chapters starts with the same sentence or a close variation on it (‘At midnight, when the year turned there were fireworks…’) and spans a year. It pays special attention to the cycle of seasons, as evidenced by changes in the vegetal and animal worlds, and to the rituals that the rural community retains: the well dressing in June, the harvest festival in early autumn, bonfire night in November, and the unfailing Christmas pantomime. Stroke by stroke the sketches emerge, as if fashioned by the fingertips of a persistent, discreet painter, a master in the art of discrete portraying. This implies that the characters surface individually, though in relation with one another and juxtaposed with vignettes of the natural world. Such a technique is at work in the following emblematic passage:

The sound of Sean Hooper dressing stone came from across the river, a steady clipped chime moving a beat behind the fall of his arm. The swallows were busy in and out of the barns. The well-dressing boards were brought out of storage and taken down to the river to be soaked. (39)

6It may have become apparent by now that McGregor’s technique of landscape evocation depends more on poring through a microscope than wielding field glasses, as if the practice favoured in his début novel, If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things (2002), had been pushed to a higher degree of consummation still.

7The consequence of such poetic choices is to reject all distance between the perceiving subject and the observed object. In Reservoir 13, it seems that the convention according to which pleasure in the observation of a landscape is inherent in the distance from which it is seen (Roger 27, Collot 17) is methodically ruined. Unity is replaced by fragmentation and panoramic contemplation by the consideration of the individual or the small group (of villagers, of badgers in the woods, of specimens of the local flora). This implies in turn that there is no ‘artialisation’ (Roger 16–17) of the land that would rely on the aesthetic conventions dominating landscape painting or, at least, evocation. In other words, there does not appear a model of a landscape through which the rural world evoked in the novel could be seen and that it would reconstruct in an aesthetic gesture. Or else, if such a general model (possibly inherited from Peacham) hovers somewhere in the narrative, it is in a ruined, fragmented way that veers towards the kaleidoscopic. Similarly, there is no privileged perspective emanating from the pages, no framing effect that might be achieved through a window, that essential prop in the invention of Western landscape, according to Alain Roger (73). Typically, we are only given the odd glance through a window into the depths of the surrounding woods, as if framing and height could only lead to a greater humbling of the perspective. Very rarely in the 325 dense pages is the reader allowed a fleeting long shot at the limits of the valley, with the briefest of peeks at the horizon that is solicited the better to be dismissed in the next line: ‘Ahead of them a line of flagstones stretched right across the moor, the reservoirs off to one side, the motorway along the horizon, a line of wind turbines turning over on the distant ridge’ (295).

8Replacing distance with proximity has several effects, on top of exploding the aesthetic conventions of landscape presentation. Chief among them features the granting of more concreteness and density to the elements of the natural and rural world. This refers to one of the basic elements that Jean Besse lists as constituents of landscape, i.e.: substantiality. In his terms, ‘[l]andscape possesses an intrinsic substantiality and thickness; it is a complex, articulated gathering of objects or at least one area of material reality, vaster and deeper than the realities that go along with it’ (Besse 42–43, translation mine). Such a density allows for what Besse considers as the ‘realistic’ conception of landscape that McGregor is intent on building up and relies on the use of what Besse calls ‘polysensoriality’ (13), a characteristic that he sees as common to landscape experience but which may be said to reach unwonted levels in Reservoir 13. All senses are solicited in McGregor’s evocation, whether the reader is repeatedly asked to scrutinise the heron poised in the stream and ready to dart at an invisible prey; to heed the chirping of the swallow fledglings in the nest in the rafters of the barn; or else inhale the organic smell of turf. This is evocative of what Jane Bennett calls ‘vibrant matter’ or ‘wild materiality’ (vii). In other words, the multiplication of sensorial vignettes provides ‘an aesthetic-affective openness to material vitality’ (Bennett x) that makes the reader plunge into the physical world instead of letting him or her contemplate some panorama through the conventional suavity of landscape observation. The vibrant close ups on the ferns slowly unfurling their scrolls or on the buzzards’ beaks weaving in new sticks and stalks into the nests in the conifers flesh out a story where proximity and contact is dealt out in fragmentary notes. The resulting impression is that the narrative relies more on the juxtaposition of vocabulary than on the concatenating power of syntax. Ultimately, this is tantamount to suggesting that Reservoir 13 privileges the density of perception and the evocation of incarnated experience.

9In other words, the elicitation of a rural community and the blowing up of the conventions of landscape introduce a shift from an aesthetics of suavity to one of proximity, thereby privileging the tactile or the haptic. In other terms, it seems as if the vibrancy of McGregor’s universe could not only be caught visually, but also and above all by feeling the very pulsations of the natural world and its inhabitants, both non-human and human. Once again, artialisation is not at stake in the novel, or if it is, only to be ruined or altogether denied: aesthetic emotion of the suave type is replaced by multiple blocks of affect that hesitate on the brink of separation or collaboration. I would argue that this confirms the diagnosis put forward by the authors of the introduction to Affective Landscapes in Literature, Arts and Everyday Life when they assert that ‘[w]hat sets affect apart […] is its emphasis not on the grand narratives, but the small scale, the ordinary, the everyday’ (Berberich, Campbell and Hudson 2). Reservoir 13 acts by promoting small acts of perception and putting them to the fore. Ordinary detail after ordinary detail is granted due if punctual attention in a narrative that could well be envisaged in the terms that Jon Foley Sherman applies to drama, as he evokes how, ‘[r]ather than establish empirical truths, theatre asserts lived experience as the primary mode of being, one that ultimately escapes total comprehension. A performance may or may not be true, but it will always be experienced’ (Foley Sherman 22). McGregor’s narrative seems to be doing just this, i.e.: through narratorial impersonalisation, the human is humbled to the level of the animal, the vegetal and at times the mineral or elemental to build up a diffracted, kaleidoscopic landscape resonant with affect. Similarly, the novel is devoid of any snatch of direct discourse, and multiplies impersonal sentences, relying heavily on the use of the passive and occluding any site of agency, this contributing to character effacement and impersonalisation. The presentation of landscape favoured here is of a clearly experiential type, which means that the experiential quality is meant to be denser in McGregor’s prose (Besse 57). Such a resonance and vibrancy of the humble and ordinary goes along with an ideally democratic deployment of attention.

10Among the characteristics of McGregor’s fractional landscape that eschews overall apprehension and refuses any type of vantage point lies its capacity to paradoxically take into account invisibilities of various types. That landscape, in its traditional acceptation, is inherently selective if not completely original. Collot reminds us that ‘[i]t only allows us to see an expanse of land by depriving our gaze of other areas, whose presence it lets us intuit.’ (Collot 26, translation mine) Still, I would argue that attention to invisibilities characterises McGregor’s landscape in even greater proportions. This has been suggested above, as I have alluded to a clearly stated preference for showing the ordinary and the humble (i.e.: etymologically, what is close to the earth). In McGregor’s landscapes, there is something earthy that hides in the shade and is made to appear under the eye of the attentive reader. The unfurling ferns and nest-building buzzards, in the same way as the badgers and foxes sporting in the benighted woods, and also the character faltering in mid-sentence or casting an eloquent glance all refer to the need to take the invisible (or at least the unseen) and the inaudible into consideration. This is reminiscent of Collot’s words, when he speaks of a ‘pensée-paysage’ —landscape as thinking and thinking as landscape—‘such a thought [that] relies on attentive consideration’ (Collot 273). Attentive consideration is certainly a means of focusing the reader’s interest in what would otherwise pass unnoticed and opening his/her eyes to the humbler forms of life and activities. From this point of view, one might argue that McGregor’s narrative follows in the Romantics’ ethical wake by defamiliarising everyday life and renewing our perceptions, shedding fresh light on what is generally taken for granted. By definition, such a cleansing of perception makes the observer vulnerable to unsuspected alterity and transforms landscape into an ethical apparatus.

11For in fact, Reservoir 13 is essentially attuned to the rhythms of the invisible and the inaudible as it not only throws the unseen into light but also the immaterial into visibility by allowing the reader to sight the absent and the lost. From this point of view, it may be said that the founding disappearance and loss not only provides the fuel for the plot that in fact will not be used as such but rather as a way to problematise the very idea of a plot, but is also used the better to allow for apparitions of the intangible. In fact, the novel is rife with rhyming references to the lost girl, always starting with the same words and appearing in the middle of any chapter, following on no special type of information: ‘The missing girl’s name was Rebecca, or Becky, or Bex. In the photo her face was half-turned from the camera as though she didn’t want to be seen […]’ (182, see also 237, 260 et passim). Such textual inscriptions that play out the collective trauma of the unexplained disappearance, as the past relentlessly yet erratically repeats itself in the present of the narrative, dovetail with the spectral sightings that equally dot the story. This is the case when, out of nowhere and for no precise reason, the narrative naturalises the girl’s presence, thereby insisting on the failure of causality and the untimeliness of the traumatic returns:

In September a soft rain no more than mist hung in the trees along the valley floor. The river turned over beneath the packhorse bridge and carried straps of light to the weir. The missing girl was seen walking around the shore of the reservoir, hopping from some breakwater rock to another with seemingly not a care in the world. (75)

12In such passages, the impersonal mode is hauntingly privileged (by resorting to the passive form here), which gives the impression of an observer or of a series of observers training their attention on the most trivial action of the participants, calling forth ‘the experience of being watched by a presence that you cannot perceive’ (Macfarlane), thereby hesitating on the incarnation of absence. The text beats about the central hole of the collective trauma that has seized hold of the narrative, transforming it into a ‘critical landscape’ (Roger 114): ‘critical’ because it reveals an absence and a void beyond the apparently saturated network of vignettes; and ‘critical’ too in that it metaleptically features a ‘collapse of […] understanding,’ to take up Cathy Caruth’s felicitous and illustrious phrase (Caruth 6). In other words, McGregor is intent on building up a landscape of memory, and more especially I would argue, a traumatic landscape that is, by definition, one that accommodates repetition and opens itself to a past that is unfixed, unassimilated and thereby fuelled by the compulsion to repeat itself in the present. Anachronism and untimely return are therefore the rippling effects and symptoms acting out the violence of embedded invisibility. As the site of anachronism, the landscape in Reservoir 13 is a dense, complex one that builds up on the accumulation of traces and prints, as suggested by Besse for whom ‘[landscape] is also a succession of traces and prints that become superimposed to the ground and provide, so to speak, its thickness, both symbolical and material. Landscape is also a site of memory’ (Besse 37, translation mine). This ties in nicely with Georges Didi-Huberman’s evocation of the print as a complex technical apparatus, as it allows for the irruption of anachronism into landscape and, for our purposes, into the fictional text as landscape. To him, the anachronism of the print

consists in the collision of this always with an after which produces […] its opening, unveiling and disfiguration altogether. Anachronism is thus akin with deferred action (Nachträglichkeit), perhaps another way to express Warburg’s surviving (Nachleben). (Didi Huberman 29, translation mine, original emphasis)

13With the anachronous potential of the print, what obtains is the possibility for McGregor’s landscape to integrate a temporality distinct from the yearly and cyclical on the one hand, and from the linear on the other. The man-made prints left on the banks of the river, in the woods or on the crumbling walls of the quarry are but an extension of the print left on the minds of the villagers by a traumatic hole: the girl’s absence negatively represents a human gesture that is both somehow inscribed in the past and recurrent in the present. It unfastens time and spurns the demands of chronology. It throws time out of joint, despite the relentlessly soothing cyclical return of seasons and rituals. It simply opens it up.

14By presenting the invisible and opening up time and the human, McGregor’s landscape itself becomes exposed and exposes the subject to the real. Far away from the apparently peaceful backdrop for the life of a rural community, not only does it knit the subject into the density of experience but it also exposes him or her to the event, as suggested by Besse (50). It thereby acts positively on the subject whom it

tears away from the status of an experience always identical to itself while revealing another altogether different dimension: that of a throwing away (jet) or a project(ion) that makes him/her ek-sist out of him-/herself. The spacing of the subject would then designate his/her projection into space as the very condition of his/her existence. Contrary to any philosophical tradition that sees in such a ‘being thrown away’ the risk of a deposition, I also see in it the opportunity it gives the subject to paradoxically become fulfilled as soon as s/he renounces to dwell within him-/herself. (Collot 34, original emphasis)

15From this perspective, I would suggest that one of the singularities of landscape as presented in Reservoir 13 is that, on top of being critical, it assumes an ethical function. Miles away from the soothing qualities of the conventional English landscape, McGregor’s assumes a radically disquieting function by opening up both itself and the subject the better to make exposures relate. Such a quality is reminiscent of the ‘eerie counterculture’ or ‘occulture’ that Robert Macfarlane sees as central to the contemporary British rural inspiration (McFarlane).

16As indicated by W.J.T Mitchell in the second of his theses, ‘[l]andscape is a medium of exchange between the human and the natural, the self and the other. As such, it is like money: good for nothing in itself, but expressive of a potentially limitless reserve of value’ (Mitchell 5). Such a reserve of value appears on every single page of Reservoir 13, a narrative chockfull with evocations of ‘vibrant matter,’ teeming non-human life and constant human intercourse. The poetic and structural choice that privileges the juxtaposition of vignettes featuring objects of varying ontological status gives the impression that the human emanates from the natural, in the same way as the natural elements of the landscape are tightly intertwined with the human. Such a juxtaposition looks like a relational device, so much so that, in the kaleidoscopic universe of McGregor’s novel, it seems as if things and beings were separated the better to connect, or at least to multiply attempts at connection. Relationality stands at the core of the narrative and its project. In fact, not only characters strain towards one another, in the various sketches of friendship, love affairs, etc. building up into clearer delineation as each chapter brings in more information, but also punctual historical references are woven in, as with the passage alluding to surviving memories of WW2 and the waves of bombers flying over the valley (304). More importantly, even if the focus remains overwhelmingly on the secluded circle of the valley, the village in many ways imports or simply reflects the social issues that dominate present-day Britain. In this way, the a-temporal return of seasons and rituals provides the backdrop against which relations among individuals themselves and their environment are sketched, i.e.: issues relating to sexual morality or ethics like gender (231), paedophilia (235), or else to economic problems, as with emigration (174) or the fall of the price of milk (255) among many others. Similarly, the natural catastrophes taking place elsewhere in the world are imported into the unnamed valley through the means of the televised news—one of the main structural rhymes bringing along visions of fire or floods. This is encapsulated in an introspective passage focussed through Les Thomson’s consciousness. In fact, this minor character in a cast where the distinction between protagonist and secondary character is difficult to achieve ruminates over whether he should let go of his cows, immediately followed by a more impersonal, unfocussed snatch evoking the intrusion of the TV screen:

He turned and let them follow, feeling a push of warm air behind him. He was not a sentimental man but he would miss these girls if he had to give up. He was one of the last dairy men for miles. The prices made no sense. The supermarkets were killing them. On the television there were pictures of floods and storms and fires. (255)

  • 1 On erosion and landscape vulnerability, see Claire Omhovère’s ground-breaking essay on Alice Munro.

17The irruption of the external world is made noticeably striking by the polysyndeton, the violence of the natural world, even out of immediate reach, bleeding into that of the economic crisis that is looming over the valley farmers. It lends some relentlessness to the threat, thereby making it clear that the existence of the community and of each individual in the community is submitted to chance and risk. The landscape of Reservoir 13, in its critical function, reveals some economic, natural and anthropological precariousness since, despite the seemingly unchanging features of the valley, seclusion and protection are slowly but inevitably replaced by more collective exposure. Such a landscape is a vulnerable one, not only in its evocation of the crumbling walls of the quarry and of the changing pastures: it is presented in its vulnerability in that it is not, despite appearances, closed in on itself, sovereign and autonomous, but dependent on the wider world, and itself made up of interdependent slices and fragments that rely on one another to build up a general impression that fails to cohere, or at best trembles on the verge of consistency.1 Clearly, one of the narrative’s greatest achievements is to express the imperceptible character of mutability, which takes decades to make itself felt in a subtly pointillist yet inexorable fashion.

18One step further, one may argue that the landscape in Reservoir 13 inscribes and performs relationality not to places beyond the horizon of the valley, but more particularly and intimately, to the various elements in the landscape (including its silence and lacunae), and between those and the human subject. In the same way as the mystery of the missing girl is never solved and the investigation remains ‘open, despite the passage of time’ (133), characters and milieu are seen to remain open to each other, as suggested in the following passage where the spectral manifestation of traumatic events seeps through the character and into the earth—and the other way round, possibly:

Susanna was feeling pretty tense around the clavicles herself. […] All those things that had happened. When she thought they were passed they kept coming back. She lifted her head and dropped her shoulders and tried to feel herself connected to the earth beneath the balls of her feet. (224)

  • 2 On such a vision of the vulnerable, see Ganteau.

19Even if some amused irony may be attributed to the impersonal, unobtrusive narrator, what obtains here is a vision of the subject as physically related to her milieu, experiencing connection and, as underscored by the polysyndeton once again, becoming a site of relationality with the other. Many similar passages might be called forth, but suffice it to remember that McGregor’s novel promotes a phenomenological point of view on and of landscape, where self and language are separated the better to be intertwined (Wylie 14) and where, as much as character, ‘[l]andscape appears more and more like a relational entity, and what it expresses is this relationality’ (Besse 45, translation mine). Seen in this light, and in unison with Besse once again, it may be argued that landscape reveals its specificity in terms of mediation (médiance) and becomes a ‘medial (médiale) entity’ (Besse 45, translation mine), which transforms it into a ‘dynamic, changing totality, crossed by fluxes of variable natures, intensities and directions’ (Besse 47, translation mine). More than mere openness, it may be said that what singularises McGregor’s landscape is a sense of unbridled, multi-directional relationality. This is made possible through the structural and poetic choice of juxtaposition that Collot analyses in terms of an ‘interdependence of the observer and the observed [that] invites us to go beyond the separation between subject and object, anthropos and cosmos decreed by modern rationality, to the benefit of a relational thinking (pensée de la relation)’ (Collot 273, translation mine). As suggested by Collot, through its creation of a renewed, critical landscape such a contemporary novel as Reservoir 13 takes part in a general movement (and possibly paradigm shift) consisting in conceiving of the subject as certainly not splendidly isolated and autonomous, but more pointedly dependent on others and the other, exposed to the other, hence by definition vulnerable.2 In the same way, the novel presents the readers with an instance of vulnerable landscapes, to take up one of Claire Omhovère’s powerful ideas as applied to Alice Munro’s short fiction.

20Ultimately, I would state that McGregor’s treatment of landscape is a political and an ethical one, as has been suggested above. By resorting to a poetics of fragmentation and experimenting on the art of fiction, the novel is conceived of as an apparatus meant to whet the reader’s perceptual and attentional capacities. In focusing on the humble and invisible and addressing the unremarkable aspects of the ordinary, Reservoir 13 trains our political and ethical capacities by multiplying insignificant vignettes, by resorting to a poetics relying on the juxtaposition of the apparently trifling and introducing minor, lateral steps in the infinitesimal cyclical evolution of natural and communal rhythms. As was already the case in his first novel, McGregor reminds us that ‘the everyday holds the extraordinary,’ which is in itself a plea for a ‘vibrant potential for an ethics of attention’ (Foley Sherman 147). One of the most remarkable feats that the novel performs is to narrow the gap between the principle and practice of attention. What I have in mind here is Foley Sherman’s distinction between attention as principle and as practice, the former being egalitarian, the latter non-egalitarian:

I cannot pay attention to everything. Attention is egalitarian in principle —everyone could be paid attention to and anyone could pay attention. Attention is anti-egalitarian in practice. It is inescapably and unjustly and lovingly and dangerously unequal. And yet surely everyone desires attention, needs it, and cracks into the greatest despair of all when feeling that no attention can be had. And surely ethics of any sort begin with attention. (Foley Sherman 147, original emphasis)

21Experimenting on the fictional uses of the ordinary, McGregor gets the reader not only to reflect on but also practice an ethics and a politics of perception, and most emphatically of attention. The repetitive, monotonous narrative, which accommodates only tiny elements of variation, taxes the reader’s attentiveness and may be considered to solicit its consistent, democratic exercise.

22Along similar lines, it could be said that McGregor’s landscapes are in fact operators that transform sideration into consideration, or at least take pains to discriminate clearly between the two and to tip the scales very much in favour of the latter. The distinction is made by French philosopher and literary scholar Marielle Macé, in a short book devoted to migrants. Even if McGregor’s fields of investigation are different, in this novel particularly, I would argue that her words apply fairly well to the ethical practice or movement that Reservoir 13 enjoins the reader to perform: ‘the movement no longer of sideration but of consideration that should also spur us; of consideration, that is of observation, attention, thoughtfulness, respect, esteem and, thereby, of the re-opening of a relation, a proximity, a possibility’ (Macé 23, translation mine). By training the reader to the perception of ordinary singularities, Reservoir 13 calls on his/her individual responsibility and makes the experiential encounter with landscape meet the demands of ethical attentiveness. McGregor’s landscape breeds consideration.

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Bennett, Jane, Vibrant Matter, Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2010.

Berberich, Christine, Neil Campbell, and Robert Hudson, eds., Affective Landscapes in Literature, the Arts and Everyday Life. Memory, Place and the Senses, London and New York: Routledge, 2015.

Besse, Jean, Le Goût du monde. Exercices de paysage, Arles: Actes Sud, 2009.

Caruth, Cathy, ‘Introduction’, Trauma. Explorations in Memory, ed. Cathy Caruth, Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins UP, 1995. 1–12.

Collot, Michel, La pensée-paysage, Arles: Actes Sud, 2011.

Didi-Huberman, Georges, La ressemblance par contact. Archélologie, anachronisme et modernité de l’empreinte, Paris: Minuit, 2008.

Foley Sherman, Jon, A Strange Proximity. Stage Presence, Failure, and the Ethics of Attention, London and New York: Routledge, 2016.

Ganteau, Jean-Michel, The Ethics and Aesthetics of Vulnerability in Contemporary British Fiction, London and New York: Routledge, 2015.

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1 On erosion and landscape vulnerability, see Claire Omhovère’s ground-breaking essay on Alice Munro.

2 On such a vision of the vulnerable, see Ganteau.

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Jean-Michel Ganteau, « Diffracted Landscapes of Attention: Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13 »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 55 | 2018, mis en ligne le 01 septembre 2018, consulté le 18 juillet 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Jean-Michel Ganteau

Jean-Michel Ganteau is Professor of Contemporary British Literature at the University Paul Valéry Montpellier 3 (France). He is the editor of the journal Études britanniques. He is the author of two monographs: David Lodge: le choix de l’éloquence (Presses Universitaires de Bordeaux, 2001) and Peter Ackroyd et la musique du passé (Michel Houdiard, 2008) and of a book-length study entitled The Ethics and Aesthetics of Vulnerability in Contemporary British Fiction (Routledge, 2015). He is the editor, with Christine Reynier, of five volumes of essays published with the Presses Universitaires de la Méditerranée. He has also co-edited five volumes of essays with Susana Onega, The Ethical Component in Experimental British Fiction since the 1960s (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007), Trauma and Ethics in Contemporary British Literature (Rodopi, 2011), Trauma and Romance in Contemporary British Literature (Routledge, 2012), Contemporary Trauma Narratives: Liminality and the Ethics of Form (Routledge, 2014), and Victimhood and Vulnerability in 21st-Century Fiction (2017). He has published articles on contemporary British fiction, with a special interest in the ethics of affects (as manifest in such aesthetic resurgences and concretions as the baroque, kitsch, camp, melodrama, romance), in France and abroad.

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