Tuesday, September 07, 2010

the last book I read

Weekend by William McIlvanney.

There is to be a literary study and appreciation weekend on the fictional  Scottish island of Cannamore (which judging by the notes in the acknowledgements section at the end of the book is loosely based on Tiree). As we join the story various people are preparing to set off - Kate, Jacqui and Alison are having a drink in a wine bar and mulling over the bed-hopping shenanigans at previous years' events and the prospects for similar activities this year; writer Harry Beck (still living off the glory of his only novel some years previously) is hanging out in a bar trying to pick up women; retreat organiser Andrew Lawson is guiltily preparing to leave his wife, who has late-stage multiple sclerosis, in the hands of a carer for the weekend; friends Vikki and Marion are both having second thoughts about attending, but neither wants to let the other down by backing out.

So things are set up for a bit of a David Lodge-esque academic romp, with various entertaining bed-hopping and farcical Brian Rix style quick-into-the-wardrobe-it's-my-husband stuff, interleaved with a bit of literary deconstruction just for good measure. And we do get some of that stuff, but not quite in the manner we might expect.

We get the rug pulled from under us straight away, as the narrative skips the attendees' arrival on the island and the first day's academic activity and leaps straight to the early hours of the morning after, at which point various sexual psychodramas are in the process of being played out. Jacqui Forsyth has ended up in bed with lecturer David Cudlipp (a serial seducer at these events, who we gather had had a similar liaison with Alison the year before) and on their returning to his room to pick up some extra booze it transpires that his wife has come to pay him a surprise visit to announce the success of their lengthy quest to adopt a child. Quick, into the wardrobe, it's the wife, etc. Andrew Lawson has ended up in bed with Vikki Kane and unsurprisingly finds himself even more guilt-stricken than before at his abandonment of his wife. Kate Foster, who came to the island with hopes of finally losing her virginity, has managed to do so successfully at the hands of Mickey Deans, an aspiring young writer. Meanwhile Harry Beck, who would normally be wading into the licentious proceedings with some gusto, is having an existential crisis over his past misdemeanours, both his reckless treatment of women and his drunken misbehaviour at various book readings, reflection which seems to have been prompted by his brief encounter with Mary Sue, the woman he met in the bar (and subsequently slept with) the night before the trip.

Further complications ensue, for Vikki and Andrew in particular - it is revealed that Vikki has had a diagnosis of breast cancer and will have to undergo a course of treatment that may well include a mastectomy on her return to the mainland, and when Andrew checks in at home before leaving he learns that his wife has died while he has been away.

All of this is interspersed with various snippets of literary critical analysis as delivered during the weekend's lectures, mainly Andrew Lawson's thoughts on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Harry Beck's deconstruction of the legend of Oedipus. Oddly enough Kleinzeit had a bit of a running thread of this sort as well, though it was the legend of Orpheus in this case. There are a couple of other echoes of previous entries in this series as well - David Lodge as already mentioned, but also The Accidental in the constantly switching viewpoints without any immediate clue as to whose viewpoint it is, so we have to try and work it out as we go. There's no particular resolution of anything at the end, either; now obviously the counter-argument to this is that that just reflects real life, and perhaps so.

Anyway, it's very clever and nicely observed, but as this Independent review says, it's "easy to admire, though curiously uninvolving" - a bit like Eclipse. Just to drag in yet another previous review, here's a flattering piece in the Guardian from Irvine Welsh, similar to the one he provided for Winterwood. Again, he's more enthusiastic than I would be, but not by such a wide margin in this case. I just wasn't quite sure what it was for - a psychological analysis of modern sexual manners and mores? An illustration of the impossibility of being "good", or at least avoiding inflicting pain? Perhaps.

William McIlvanney is the brother of celebrated sports (and specifically boxing) writer Hugh McIlvanney, and the author of several other celebrated works of varying degrees of dark Scottishness, including The Big Man which was made into a film with Liam Neeson.

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