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  • Liquid Lives:Solidifying Strategies in Jon McGregor's Early Novels
  • Daniel Lea (bio)

According to sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, the contemporary phase of globalized modernity means always having strangers at one's door. These strangers cannot simply be identified with the outsider, the foreigner, or the refugee, for strangerhood has become the condition of all individuals in "liquid modernity." "Liquid" is Bauman's metaphor for the transformation of once-solid social orders and state institutions by highly mobile, highly unpredictable global capital flows, the outcomes of which have been "[p]rogressive deregulation of labour markets and 'flexibilization' of work . . . , growing fragility of social positions and instability of socially recognized identities" (Strangers 29).1 The stranger is the bane of liquid modernity, but also its ubiquitous representative. Liquidity makes strangers of citizens by uprooting them from solid social structures while demanding that they re-embed themselves within personal and collective identities increasingly characterized by impermanence and weightlessness. Discarded by political authorities that no longer consider it their role either to ensure universal economic security or to entrench citizens in civic life, the stranger is "liberated" from duty to, and [End Page 66] responsibility for, social reproduction. Instead, Bauman argues, they live in "an individualized, privatized version of modernity, with the burden of pattern-weaving and the responsibility for failure falling primarily on the individual's shoulders" (Liquid Modernity 7–8). The patterns for self-fashioning, however, are no longer clear, the roles to be played neither given nor self-evident, and the new beds offered by consumer society not to be occupied for long before fresh opportunities for tenancy become available. Itinerancy characterizes the liquid phase of modernity, and the stranger's dreams of solid and lasting identity (both social and personal) are forfeited to the injunction to unpick connections to the past through continuous reinvention. Estrangement is thus just as much an a priori of identity in liquid modernity as it is of the encounter with the Other; it is the ambivalence at the core of any postulated selfhood that disrupts its relationships to the Other, to the collective, and to the society it inhabits.

Jon McGregor's work illustrates the dilemmas of such endemic strangerhood. Born in 1976, McGregor has grown to maturity in Bauman's world of liquefying constants. He is one of a generation of British novelists (like Hari Kunzru, Olivia Laing, Tom McCarthy, and Adam Thirlwell) whose writing reflects upon, but also exemplifies the discontinuities generated by the drivers of liquid modernity. These discontinuities are aesthetic as well as socioeconomic, and McGregor's narrative vision is as restless as the lives he describes. He has shifted style in each novel, with an identifying technique distinguishing each work from its predecessor (the museum catalog entries of So Many Ways to Begin [2006]; the reiterative structure of Reservoir 13 [2017], set on each New Year's Eve after a girl's disappearance). He inhabits the "until-further-notice" contingency that Bauman analyses, even as he details the depredations that it produces. His early works in particular dramatize the personal and social dysfunctions of identity in liquid times. If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things (2002) and So Many Ways to Begin are filled with characters who are strangers to themselves, living among others with whom they connect superficially in locations shaped by migrancy and intermittence. When David and Eleanor Carter move to Coventry in So Many Ways, they do so as part of post-World War II population planning that sees the city reconstituted from bombed-out rubble into a cosmopolitan hub of decolonized immigrants [End Page 67] and beneficiaries of welfare-driven class mobility. The more rundown of the houses on the street in If Nobody Speaks accommodate their fair share of itinerant residents too: students in temporary lodgings and those at the lower end of the socioeconomic order. In these places, situatedness never matures into integratedness and the identities built there are marked by the consciousness of contingency. McGregor's protagonists, disoriented by the waning of inherited social roles, search for reference points from which to regard their lives. Denied any illusion of de jure belonging, they are handed instead the task of "compulsive and obligatory self-determination...


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