Setting the brain on fire

Sat, Dec 29, 2012, 00:00

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.

Asserting Scottish literature

Personal experience has given him a life story and sharpened his wits. Evacuated during the second World War, he went to art school and, while a student, began working on an urban saga that would not only establish him as a writer but also assert Scottish literature. That breakthrough work was Lanark: A Life in Four Books (1981). Set in the contrasting cities of Unthank and Glasgow, it is Blakean in its vision. In two of the four books, Duncan Thaw explores and endures Glasgow, while the other two are an allegorical fantasy.

1982, Janine (1984) followed and is an inventive, if overblown, journey into the organised alcoholic chaos of the ageing, divorced, insomniac narrator’s mind as he ponders sexual fantasy and politics in between lamenting lost love and his distant childhood.

The Fall of Kelvin Walker (1985) is a disciplined morality play about ambition, hypocrisy and true love. It is written in a tone of calm detachment. Intent on success, Kelvin abandons his small native village of Glaik to seek his fortune in the big city: “London was wealthy. Other British cities, Glasgow for example (he had seen Glasgow), had been built by money and still contained large amounts of it, but money seemed a slower substance in the north – a powerful substance, certainly, but solid. Those owning it had not been liberated by it. Their faces were as severe, their mouths as grimly clenched as those without. But here in London – had it happened a year ago or a century or many centuries? – money had accumulated to a point where it had flashed into wealth, and wealth was free, swift, reckless, mercuric.”

Neither a villain nor a hero, Kelvin is barely human and not all that likeable. Yet the subversive narrative tone heralds what has become vintage Gray: wry, informed, thoughtful. This is the key to Gray’s flamboyance: he is at heart a serious writer and a profoundly political social commentator capable of modifying his rage.

Loneliness, power, the pressure to conform, the dreams of the weak and life’s tiny struggles thrust and shimmy throughout not only these stories, spanning his career, but through all of his work. His drawings are bold and prophetic – a grey-haired, aged baby lies on his back while spreading his wings.

In Swan Burial (from The Ends of our Tethers), the narrator, approaching retirement age, is aware of being increasingly confused. “I fear this job is getting beyond me and I should apply for something less demanding.” He then remembers that he has applied for another job but is late for the interview. When he finally returns home late, via various pubs, he hears fragments of his sleeping wife’s dream, which involves the laying to rest of a swan. “I wish she had chosen a different star,” the sleeper sighs.

Gray is a wise man with a difference; he is detached yet involved. His world is vast and generous, he carries his eccentricity as if it were a banner, and his humanity is both a badge of honour and the key to uniquely visual stories that amuse and console while exploring, at times explaining, the shared madness of men and women.

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