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Trauma and the Ethics of Vulnerability: Jon McGregor’s Even the Dogs

Trauma et éthique de la vulnérabilité : Even the Dogs de Jon McGregor
Jean-Michel Ganteau


Cet article propose une analyse des différents exemples de forme vulnérable à l’œuvre dans le troisième roman de Jon McGregor, Even the Dogs (2011). Il se concentre successivement sur la poétique de la narration spectrale, qui permet d’opérer un renversement de visibilités, sur l’utilisation du présent de narration comme symptôme textuel de l’après-coup, et sur la thématisation de l’inter-dépendance comme nouveau modèle de subjectivité. La forme vulnérable et la poétique de la vulnérabilité qui, à bien des égards, évoquent l’esthétique du réalisme traumatique, sollicitent la responsabilité du lecteur selon des modalités qui ne sont pas sans rappeler les principes et pratiques de l’éthique du care.

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1Even the Dogs, McGregor’s third novel, takes a plunge into the underworld of dossers and drug addicts, in some unnamed suburb somewhere in the North of England. In doing so, the narrative seems to edge towards that time-honoured British sub-genre, i.e. the State-of-England novel. As trauma fiction, it zooms in on various protagonists’ case histories: histories of abuse at the hands of parents or wardens, and ill-treatment or more specifically treason—performed by the State through its involvement in various conflicts. The State’s responsibility in what is at times suggested to be social neglect is also addressed. This is done by resorting to most of the ingredients of trauma fiction and more particularly traumatic realism, mixing realism and experiments with form instrumental in the figuration of trauma, like fragmentation, spectrality and chronological disarray (Foster 1996; Rothberg 2000; Whitehead 84). Like McGregor’s previous novels, it is written in what at times may be defined as poetic prose thanks to the use of opaque rhythmical devices, a strong anaphoric disposition and a preference for short, condensed paragraphs. Those are staples of fragmented writing, which may at times become interrupted writing. The narrative, as often with trauma fiction, is also dominated by the haunting recurrence of conversational snatches that figure the characters’ failure to eschew responsibility for their complicity in leaving a friend of theirs—Robert, a severely alcoholic fellow outcast—unattended over the Christmas period, when he died alone.

2There is something unusual, to say the least, about the narrator of Even the Dogs. The choral ‘we’ that is used consistently, in association with the present tense, is perceived as problematical from the very beginning. Granted, it is a chorus of voices that chronicle(s) the discovery of Robert’s corpse, right in the middle of winter, on a freezing evening. Yet, a few pages are necessary to confirm the original uncanny presence of the chorus, who prove to be disincarnated voices managing to squeeze into the ambulance without anybody noticing their presence (15). These voices, whose texture is woven into the narrative fabric, both literalise and dramatise the collective narrator’s invisibility. For in fact, even if the reader is left in doubt as to the plural narrator’s identity, it becomes obvious as the story unfolds that the speakers are the departed, i.e., those who knew the protagonist and the newly deceased, without one group sharing the other’s ontological sphere.

3My hypothesis is that those spectral voices, in their in-between world dominated by endless waiting, dwell in some sort of social limbo, neither in this world nor in that one, and in both at the same time. The choral, spectral narrative device achieves an ethical and political purpose by drawing attention to ordinary trauma and vulnerability. By resorting to the above-described narrative and ontological scandal, the spectral choral narrator figures the presence of the past and the persistence of the departed in the present. The voices here are monsters that exhibit themselves so as to take the characters, the readers and themselves to task. Their omnipresence mimics the effects of the repetition-compulsion, and their permanent yet intermittent presence flaunts and visualises the inassimilable nature of a traumatic past: they are always latently there, but they do not systematically assume pride of place or refer to themselves.

4One should also underline that the whole narrative is written in the present tense, a way of foregrounding the sense of loss and of figuring out that time is at a standstill. Like the ghost, the present tense is an ethical device which aims at discreet, though consistent defamiliarisation. The use of the present tense allows a fitful sense of immediacy to invade the text, producing an impression of subdued destabilisation not unlike constant ripples of anxiety that may be said to mimic that which emerges in the aftermath of traumatic breaches. Obviously, present tense narration does not only evoke present time narration, but rather stretched-time or atemporal narration espousing the contourless features of a world from which time has absented itself. In other terms, the world of Even the Dogs is shown to be submitted to an excess of overflowing time, as if the present could not be contained in the instant, as if it were always, monstrously, on the brink of falling into the past to leave room for the event of the future, and as if this could never take place. The novel seems to explore what can be seen as the extremity of the compulsion to repeat and, in Derrida’s terms, what consigns the protagonists and the readers to anachrony. In other words, the perpetual, spectral presence of the past prevents time from flowing, which, Françoise Davoine and Jean-Max Gaudillière tell us, happens in instances of severe trauma (28).

5One step further, the narrative seems to move beyond the paroxystic state of untimely return or repetition characteristic of traumatic states. In the infinite, blocked present of the eternal vigil that the novel stages, the choral narrator does evoke the past, but it seems that, overall, this evocation partakes less of anamnesis or even reminiscence than of some ceaseless and untimely return of events, as if the narrator and protagonists were assailed by the inassimilable past. Seen in this light, Even the Dogs provides the reader with a dramatic vision of Nachträglichkeit, i.e. of the other of time that takes at least two occurrences to erupt and that opens up time (André 58). Indeed, what the fragmentary syntax and composition of Even the Dogs perform are the symptoms of endless acting out, as if the whole of the narrative were but an instance of Nachträglichkeit in the making, a limitless event whose temporal frontiers are stretched to breaking point.

6Ultimately, and in the wake of the preceding developments, I would like to suggest that Even the Dogs provides an instance of vulnerable form. By this I mean that it not only shows but also performs the vulnerability that it thematises. In using the phrase ‘vulnerable form’, what I have in mind are the poetic choices of a novel that does not respect the conventions of traditional narrative and which does so by resorting to (formal) excess so as to welcome contradiction, promote the failure of understanding and privilege openness—formal characteristics that are particularly suited to the evocation of trauma. In so doing, Even the Dogs flaunts its non-canonical, opaque form, which is a way of taking aesthetic risks. This in itself is an ethical gesture, in that the form of the text enters into some sort of harmony with the nature of the contents that it chooses to represent, i.e. exposed, vulnerable communities.

7Among the wounds in the protagonists’ respective case histories Robert’s loss and demise comes top of the list, he who used to stand (or rather recline) at the hub of the community of the bereft. As suggested above, this constitutes one of the main individual and communal traumas of the novel, as all characters, keep mulling over their treason and failure of solidarity. The past, recent or not, cannot be assimilated and repeats itself in the present, in the characters’ visions, the expression of their remorse and wishful thinking that build up into some rehearsal of their responsibilities. Interestingly, the choice of a community of drug addicts is an efficient way to foreground the notion of vulnerability which, the specialists and theorists of care tell us, is defined by the sense that there is no such thing as independence, and that what characterises humanity is interdependence (Gilligan 74, 173; Goodin 203; Held 10), and certainly not the vision of the subject as autonomous that has come to be associated with the grand narratives of modernity. Addiction and complete passivity are thus used to signal extreme dependence and even violent, extreme dependence, offering a picture of paroxystic vulnerability. And indeed, the notion of care and many instances of care-related activities are given pride of place in the narrative (even if this is often done through the means of satire, as when the thoughtlessness and bureaucratic inclinations of care workers are derided).

8Such a device is a way of reminding the reader that there are ‘special responsibilities’ to the vulnerable other, as underlined by Ernest Goodin (186). In the light of many passages, in which the narrator’s anger becomes strident, it seems as though one of the narrative’s main functions and effects were to raise consciousness, as early as the title, referring to Mathew 15.27 and implying that the protagonists of McGregor’s novel do not even get to eat crumbs, being forsaken, stray souls without a master. Seen in this way, Even the Dogs would be a model of ethical and political commitment, in that it promotes the values of attentiveness and responsibility that correspond to the first two acceptations of care as defined by Joan Tronto, i.e. ‘caring about’ and ‘taking care of’ (127). One other essential aspect of the novel’s commitment is to make the readers wonder about the criteria that define vulnerability. Indeed, by choosing to make visible the invisible population of dossers and drug-addicts, the novel implicitly raises the issue of the ‘variable norms of recognition’ of vulnerability (Butler 43). So doing, Even the Dogs raises the problem of the double stigmatisation of this afflicted part of the population, and reminds the readers that some citizens are doubly vulnerable, precisely because the recognition and definition of their vulnerability is problematical.

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André, Jacques, Les désordres du temps, Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 2010.

Butler, Judith, Precarious Life. The Powers of Mourning and Violence, 2004, London and New York: Verso, 2006.

Davoine, Françoise & Jean-Max Gaudillière, History Beyond Trauma, New York: Other Press, 2004.

Derrida, Jacques, Spectres de Marx, Paris: Galilée, 1993.

Foster, Hal, The Return of the Real: The Avant Garde and the End of the Century, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1996.

Gilligan, Carol, In a Different Voice, 1982, Cambridge, MA and London, Harvard UP, 1993.

Goodin, Robert E., Protecting the Vulnerable. A Reanalysis of Our Social Responsibilities, Chicago and London: U of Chicago P, 1985.

Held, Virginia, The Ethics of Care. Personal, Political, and Global, Oxford: Oxford UP, 2006.

McGregor, Jon, Even the Dogs, 2010, London: Bloomsbury, 2011.

Rothberg, Michael, Traumatic Realism. The Demands of Holocaust Representation, Minneapolis and London: U of Minnesota P, 2000.

Tronto, Joan C., Moral Boundaries. A Political Argument for an Ethic of Care, New York and London: Routledge, 1993.

Whitehead, Anne, Trauma Fiction, Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2004.

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Jean-Michel Ganteau, « Trauma and the Ethics of Vulnerability: Jon McGregor’s Even the Dogs », Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 45 | 2013, mis en ligne le 20 octobre 2013, consulté le 27 juin 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/ebc.940

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Jean-Michel Ganteau

Université Paul-Valéry Montpellier 3 — EMMA
Jean-Michel Ganteau is Professor of Contemporary British Literature at the Université Paul-Valéry Montpellier 3 (France). He is at the moment in charge of the postgraduate programmes and chairs the Doctoral School (ED58). He is the editor of the journal Études britanniques contemporaines. 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). He is also the editor, with Christine Reynier, of four volumes of essays Impersonality and Emotion in Twentieth-Century British Literature (Publications Montpellier 3, 2005), Impersonality and Emotion in Twentieth-Century British Arts (PULM, 2007), Autonomy and Commitment in Twentieth-Century British Literature (PULM, 2010), and Autonomy and Commitment in Twentieth-Century British Arts (PULM, 2012). He has also edited three volumes of essays in collaboration 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, 2010) and Trauma and Romance in Contemporary British Fiction (Routledge, 2013). He is the editor of special issues of various journals (Études anglaises, Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens). He has published articles and chapters 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, Europe and the USA, in edited volumes or in such journals as Miscelanea, Anglia, Symbolism, The Cambridge Quarterly.

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