So Many Ways to Begin is the story of David Carter, a museum curator who collects trivia documenting his own life. When he discovers that he is an adopted child, he becomes obsessed with finding his birth mother.
The Independent's review of So Many Ways to Begin talks about McGregor's focus on ordinary people and life changed by chance - themes that show up in both his novels.
Time and again, McGregor reminds us that these are ordinary people leading unremarkable existences. He is fascinated with chance, the small slips of circumstance that shape events. It is not so much the big dramas that matter: "Lives were changed and moved by much smaller cues, chance meetings, overheard conversations, the trips and stumbles which constantly alter and readjust the course of things, history made by a million fractional moments too numerous to calibrate or observe or record."
While lacking the faintly numinous edge that characterised If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, this is still a book about the search for some greater meaning in the strange dance of chance.
In an interview for TimeOut, McGregor says
‘It took me a long time to begin,’ says McGregor. ‘And then I felt very self-conscious about what I was writing and how I was writing. When you write a first novel, you’re just trying to get a book published and you don’t think any further than that. If it hadn’t been published I doubt if I would have had the time or the money – or the guts – to write another one. Basically, I find writing novels very difficult – both times I’ve looked for some kind of scaffolding to hang the writing on, to give me an idea of where I’m going. The structure of both books was the original starting point. As soon as I had the character of this curator, this boy who was obsessed with artefacts and history, that was an immediate way of arranging the story. It was a rich seam to mine.’
This theme of missed connections is one that McGregor has tackled before, and it’s the link between his two very different novels. ‘In a way,’ says McGregor, ‘David’s character was a riposte to the other, quite similar, character in “If Nobody Speaks…”: the boy who was taking photos of everything and collecting bits of junk and who had this idea that you could archive everything. David has to learn that it’s impossible to archive everything, and ultimately fairly pointless. Constantly looking to history and secrets and things you don’t know about can get in the way. Human relationships are what counts.’
McGregor reflects on incidents and inspiration for So Many Ways to Begin.
An extract of the first chapter of this Booker longlistee.
The Bloomsbury page for Jon McGregor has links to other reviews and more information on his first book If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things including the first chapter of the book.
The Guardian did a special report on McGregor when his first book was also longlisted for the Booker in 2002.