The American Academy of Arts & Letters Award-winning author of Reservoir 13 returns with a novel about Robert 'Doc' Wright, a veteran of Antarctic surveying, who survives a disaster out on the ice but cannot speak about it as a result of a stroke he suffers in the aftermath. Meanwhile Anna, his wife, must suddenly scramble to navigate the sharp and unexpected contours of life as a caregiver.
... another McGregor novel that, beneath its serene surface, takes huge risks. There is, for example, the wilful front-loading of the action, with that stirring storm sequence giving way to Doc’s agonisingly slow recovery. McGregor has also chosen to have a main character unable to express himself for most of the book. Fortunately, it’s also another McGregor novel that triumphantly gets away with it ... McGregor commits himself so wholeheartedly to the project of honouring minutiae (and has the literary talent to match) that the scene when post-stroke Doc first learns to touch his nose feels almost as dramatic as an Antarctic blizzard. For another, there’s the bracing awareness that the interconnectedness of human lives has its drawbacks as well as its much-trumpeted benefits ... the novel’s final scenes — poised beautifully between sadness and hope—remind us that the three verbs of the title aren’t a simple progression. Rather, they’re a constantly repeated cycle as life sticks doggedly to the process of going on.
... a jumpier, less cohesive story, with different styles and texture on offer [than in McGregor's previous books], and a reconfigured cast in each of its three main sections ... In the closing section, Robert can take charge of his identity again thanks only to the communal endeavors of the female therapists and caregivers. This would seem to offer Anna a somewhat restrictive model of female heroism, so McGregor is careful to make her a complex character, ambiguous in her responses, withdrawn, and as bad as Robert is at reading social cues ... Robert, however, is a simpler character. Until aphasia makes his thoughts a mystery, he comes across as the sort of person who’s chillingly exposed in early John le Carré novels: an emotionally evasive Englishman who has given all his loyalties to the Institute and to a dream of adventure. In the last third of the novel, McGregor constructs a moving, well-observed drama of rehabilitation around him. There are some astonishing technical feats ... Throughout the book, McGregor returns to language’s incommensurability to experience. It’s iterated obsessively in many different ways ... It’s easy to imagine how McGregor might have arrived at this theme as a means of connecting the Antarctica material to the aphasia material. Whether or not it completely works, and whether or not you can sustain momentum while going from ice floes and leopard seals to a support group in Cambridge, the eerie withholding of moral judgment makes Robert’s failure of character difficult to forget. Robert feels an ecstatic, almost pantheistic sense of oneness with the land ... It’s a sign of McGregor’s skill, and his unforced sense of the mystery at the heart of things, that the novel leaves the reader feeling much the same way.
McGregor renders this drama and its fallout, which occupies the majority of the novel, in his habitually spare prose. He is one of the few great living minimalists, able to mix deep pathos with wry comedy in a sentence too short to need a single comma. His work bears a certain resemblance to the laconically off-kilter Joy Williams, but seems more deeply influenced by the stutter-step repetitions and evasions common to everyday speech. Often in Lean Fall Stand, his sentences seem less to follow in sequence than to be shingled atop each other, either sharing or hiding meaning ... Lean Fall Stand is at its weakest, though by no means weak, in Anna's section, which never quite rises out of ambivalent-wife tropes. Her hesitant loyalty to her husband becomes too much the book's guiding spirit — and it is an affecting one, but not necessarily urgent. McGregor raises no real question of what Anna will do ... Every sentence in Lean Fall Stand serves, in its style, as a quiet reminder of how difficult it can be to represent ourselves to others ... Lean Fall Stand is more optimistic about communication than one might expect. McGregor's characters may rarely have a clue 'what to say, or how to say it,' but, fumblingly, they try.