Setting the brain on fire
FICTION: Every Short Story 1951-2012, Canongate, 933pp, £30, By Alasdair Gray
And behold, there she stands, June in her famous skirt, as bold and defiant as she was on the cover of Something Leather, published in 1990. Containing flashes of an explicitly Adventures in Wonderland pastiche, that mid-career novel followed the offbeat lives of four women. They all enjoyed the rough play and dubious activities that the Scots literary savant Alasdair Gray delights in describing, and ridiculing. Yet his central theme at that time was Margaret Thatcher’s beleaguered Britain, and nowadays he continues to support what he sees as Scotland’s rightful destiny of independence.
Nothing is ever quite what it seems in Gray’s exuberant, often surreal fictions. So when good old June reappears on the characteristically eye-catching jacket of his latest offering, a majestically bonkers-looking volume containing 89 short stories, of varying length, quality and objective, only the foolish would dare predict the contents.
Gray, who describes himself as “a fat, bespectacled, balding, increasingly old Glasgow pedestrian”, defies classification. An original on all counts, he is a literary maverick of rare cunning and insight, an honourable cross between William Blake reincarnated with a sense of humour and Kurt Vonnegut, the late, great witness of our world in decline.
As usual, Gray’s idiosyncratic, apparently random drawings and doodles adorn the pages. Yet the Captain Hook figure sitting purposefully in a little sailing boat, wearing a determined expression as he stares ahead, is a deliberate and telling motif. He also has a sword.
That sword is ever-present in the work. The benign Gray is good at concealing his deadly satiric intent, but when it does surface it can be cruel. The narrator of You (from Ten Tales Tall and True, 1993) is at a wedding when she meets a handsome, newly divorced Englishman whose skills are polite, and effective. The first three dates are impressively choreographed. By the time she thinks it is love and decides to make an effort, deciding to give instead of merely receiving, reality deals her a body blow.
This lively book of wonders great and small – admittedly, at times, bordering on the sketchy – unfurls with a gentle tale of young Cameron who finds a star after watching it fall from the night sky. “He enjoyed it for nearly two weeks, gazing at it each night below the sheets, sometimes seeing the snowflake, sometimes a flower, jewel, moon or landscape. At first he kept it hidden during the day but soon took to carrying it about with him; the smooth rounded gentle warmth in his pocket gave comfort when he felt insulted or neglected.”
When his teacher catches him looking at it, Cameron is ordered to surrender it. He refuses, and eats it, becoming a star in the process.
Gray often lampoons social, political and sexual injustices, yet his romantic’s imagination invariably tempers the polemic. True, like fine whisky, a little Gray goes a long way, and this is not a book to be read at one sitting. It must be savoured. Readers of Gray will already be familiar with some or most of the material. No matter; read it again. His vividly descriptive, robust prose invites returns visits and his best jokes remain funny. After about 300 or so pages the reader feels a pressing need to run, shout or eat something, anything. He sets the brain on fire.
True, he is often guilty of zany indulgence, yet Gray, who turned 78 yesterday, is a tireless champion of literature and of the book as art object. His astonishing project, an anthology, The Book of Prefaces (2000), is both beautiful and mad, as well as being a valuable celebration of literary history.