Tuesday, April 21, 2020

the last book I read

Lanark by Alasdair Gray.

Where do you start with a book like this? Well, it's subtitled "A Life In 4 Books" so obviously you just start with Book 1 and go from there, right? Well, only if you're some sort of hopelessly gauche naïve ingénue who expects fictional narratives to follow a linear pattern, hahahaha, I mean, can you imagine? No, of course we're going to start at Book 3.

And Book 3 starts thusly: a man is on a train. He seems to be the only passenger in the only carriage, and he can't remember how he got there, or who he is. The train is headed for the city of Unthank, a dark and dingy place closely resembling Glasgow. Our friend, now calling himself Lanark after a dimly-remembered place-name on a poster in the train carriage, does his best to settle in, but some weird shit is afoot quite apart from the lack of daylight. People disappear at random, and others are afflicted with a variety of strange ailments ranging from an outbreak of mouths all over their skin to outsized scaly limbs ("dragonhide"). Afflicted with this latter condition himself, Lanark finds himself swallowed up by a rent in the ground and wakes up in a strange medical facility with various other unfortunates who have arrived by the same route. Cured of his dragonhide and reunited with Rima, a woman he'd met in Unthank, he soon discovers that some sinister shit is afoot involving recycling the dead for food, and decides that he and Rima are going to return to Unthank to take their chances there. We are led to understand that this is a pretty unprecedented course of action, and involves traversing some sort of Forbidden Zone on the way where the regular rules of space and time don't apply, but Lanark is adamant that's what he wants to do, if only to be able to attack a sausage sandwich again with a clear conscience.

We now switch to Book 1, which is, at least at first glance, a more orthodox story involving a young man called Duncan Thaw and his childhood in Glasgow. Born into a poor family, Duncan lives through World War II, is evacuated to some rural location, endures the usual icky adolescence complete with funny feelings, you know, down there, and progresses to art school where he meets the usual parade of freaks and bullshitters (at some point here we segue into Book 2, but it's just a continuation of the same story). Duncan forms a slightly obsessive attachment to a young woman named Marjory, although she seems to just want to be friends. His tutors at art school allow him a lot of leeway as they seem to suspect he may have a talent (albeit wayward) worth nurturing, but their patience is tried to breaking point when he takes on a project to paint an enormous mural in an obscure Scottish parish church and ends up taking a Michelangelo-esque amount of time over it. Not only does this Sisyphean task cost him his place at art school but it takes a toll on his sanity as well, as he has a strange episode wherein he may or may not have murdered Marjory (most likely not, it seems) and then takes himself off to the seaside and throws himself into the sea.

We now return (in Book 4) to Lanark and his attempts to return to Unthank via the strange limbo world that exists between it and the institute he has just voluntarily left; a strange world of space and time folding back on itself, of mysterious roads disappearing in the mist only to lead you back to where you started from. Eventually Lanark and Rima find their way back to Unthank only to find it under threat of destruction by some mysterious and ill-understood forces. Lanark is chosen as Unthank's delegate to some imminent summit conference wherein its fate will be decided and is sent off in a bizarre flying contraption to the city of Provan (which looks quite a bit like Edinburgh) to put Unthank's case. He is hampered in his task by two things: firstly his own weakness for drink and pretty girls, and secondly by the fact that all the major decisions have already been made and he's just been sent over as a patsy by the people who wield the real power in the sure knowledge that he can't achieve anything useful. Returning to Unthank just in time to witness its partial destruction, he is provided with some valuable knowledge: the exact time of his own death - the next day, as it turns out.

So *cracks knuckles* what the fuck is going on here, then? The tricksy non-chronological structure conceals the basic fact that this is really two novels, a relatively straightforward Bildungsroman and a wilder sci-fi/fantasy novel, with the latter sawn in half and wrapped around the former. Clearly we are meant to recognise that Lanark and Duncan Thaw are aspects of each other, but the links are tenuous: a couple of characters refer to Lanark as "Thaw" towards the end of Book 3, and the Epilogue that crops up four chapters from the end of Book 4 spells some of this out in explicit detail, with a heavy dose of metafiction, since the character that Lanark meets who explains most of this stuff is the writer of the book.

The most obvious reading is that the end of Book 2 and the Start of Book 3 represent Thaw's death and either an extended point-of-death hallucination or a post-death descent into some sort of hell; Unthank and all its inhabitants representing some unresolved aspects of Thaw's real-life personality and experiences.

This was Alasdair Gray's first novel, published in 1981 when he was 46 years old, though he'd been working on it since his late teens. That might well have been a recipe for something unreadably lumpy and self-indulgent. It's also set in a rather forbidding close-packed typeface which makes the brain itch for a while until you get used to it; it's certainly not a book I could have contemplated reading before my recent-ish surrender to old age and purchase of a pair of dedicated reading glasses. It's also the best part of 600 pages long.

So it's a bit of an intimidating prospect, which explains its inclusion on my loose and fuzzy-edged list of outstanding Projects (as opposed to just, y'know, books) here:
As it happens, though, once you get used to the typeface it's remarkably easy to read and I scooted through it pretty quickly, by my standards anyway, Obviously being in the middle of a pandemic lockdown helps to remove distractions. So in the sense of being a long-gestated first novel which I undertook to read with some slight trepidation about how much of a slog it would be, only to find it, in general, a hoot, Lanark has much in common with The Book Of Ebenezer Le Page, a book which, oddly, was also published in 1981.

A book as wide-ranging and stylistically varied as this is bound to throw up parallels with other works as well. Here are a few which struck me:
  • The author inserting himself into the text is done in a much more unobtrusive way by John Fowles in The French Lieutenant's Woman; that was a brief non-speaking appearance in a train carriage, this is a lot more Basil Exposition, and the Epilogue section comes with a blizzard of side-notes and footnotes which threaten to overwhelm the text in some places. This in turn is reminiscent both of Infinite Jest and also the first section of Lawrence Norfolk's powerfully baffling In The Shape Of A Boar, which retells the story of Atalanta and Meleager and is eventually more footnote than text.
  • The second of the Unthank books (i.e. Book 4) contains some fairly wild sci-fi (usual caveats apply here, obviously) elements which are simultaneously a bit steampunk and a bit reminiscent of Terry Gilliam's Brazil, particularly the bureaucracy-gone-mad bits and the sense that you could be arbitrarily dragged off by the authorities at any moment for infringing some rule you weren't even aware of.
  • That last bit is pretty explicitly Kafkesque as well, referencing The Trial in particular.
  • If we go with the reading that the Unthank episodes are an extended hallucination experienced at the point of Duncan Thaw's watery death, then this is quite similar to the plot of William Golding's Pincher Martin.
  • It's an odd coincidence that two of Lanark's three immediate predecessors on this list, Surface Detail and The Affirmation, describe, respectively, Hell and a single individual split, possibly in reality or possibly just in his own fevered imaginings, between two identities and physical locations. It is a coincidence nonetheless, though: the main thing that prompted me to pick up Lanark was Alasdair Gray's death at the end of 2019.
  • Speaking of Iain Banks, who was a great admirer of Gray, Banks' own The Bridge (reputedly his favourite of his own non-SF books) appears to have some striking structural similarities to Lanark. I say "appears" as I've never read The Bridge, but some further detail can be found here.
  • This is the latest book in this series to feature some bracing female nudity on the cover (drawn by Gray himself, as was all the interior artwork) which might make it unsuitable for public reading in some company. G. and The Anatomist were two of its predecessors.
For all that, the best recommendation I can give for Lanark is that the only book it's really like is itself, and that therefore the only way you can really get a sense of what it's like is by reading it, which I strongly recommend doing.

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