Unnecessary People

Daniel Eilon

  • Unlikely Stories, Mostly by Alasdair Gray
    Penguin, 296 pp, £4.95, April 1984, ISBN 0 14 006925 9
  • 1982, Janine by Alasdair Gray
    Cape, 347 pp, £8.95, April 1984, ISBN 0 224 02094 3
  • Spaceache by Snoo Wilson
    Chatto, 160 pp, £7.95, February 1984, ISBN 0 7011 2785 6
  • Scorched Earth by Edward Fenton
    Sinclair Browne, 216 pp, £7.95, April 1984, ISBN 0 86300 044 4

Two original and accomplished works by Alasdair Gray, self-styled ‘Caledonian promover of intelligible sapience’, are published this month. Unlikely Stories, Mostly is copiously illustrated in a style which sometimes descends to coy greeting-card formalism – inanely grinning dogs, twinkling stars, nymphs with perfectly rounded breasts and perfectly circular nipples, muscular workers, a conquistador complete with Spanish moustache, an eastern scene composed of pointy pagodas. Prospective readers should not be daunted; Gray’s prose is seldom crass. Some of Gray’s experiments are daring gambles: in one story he choreographs four parallel texts on the page (edited from the lucubrations of the great and good Sir Thomas Urquhart, a fellow Scottish patriot and eccentric genius), prints the vowels and consonants of a passage on separate pages, and interrupts the text with blank sections (where the manuscript was supposedly nibbled by mice). Not all of Gray’s literary adventures are as successful as these; indeed, the editorial rodents should not have released this book from their clutches until it was seventy pages shorter. The first seven stories are pleasant and amusing enough, and are doubtless included to indicate the range of Gray’s imaginative talent. However, compared to the five central interlinked stories which take up the bulk and constitute the real achievement of this work, these minor excursions are negligible. The last two texts in particular, labelled as ‘likely stories’ and each five lines long, posit a tawdry domestic realism (within symmetrical pre and post-marital situations) as a bathetic contrast to the ‘unlikely’ fictions of the rest of the book. The gnomic closure of these scraps is pretentious, and their cynicism is trivial.

When Gray is not under the impression that he is the reincarnation of Blake, and eschews prophetic sententiousness, his work is masterly. The cadences of prophecy and its inebriating correspondences are temptations for him because of the sublime coherence of purpose in his central work. Temperamental radicalism, militant humanism and a number of recurring sexual, linguistic and aesthetic themes are woven together into a prose full of recondite allusions and brilliant innovations. Unlikely Stories, Mostly is a gothic structure of myths, ancient and bespoke. In the ‘Axle-tree’ stories (inspired by Kafka’s elaboration of the Babel myth), the primeval imperial instinct and its most recent avatar, multinational capitalist enterprise, are portrayed in a tale that is at once timeless and timely. One of the specifically contemporary details in this representation of an Empire devoted to the idolatry of exponential growth, is that a sizable proportion of the imperial revenue is spent on unemployment benefit to prevent mass revolt. Although the syndrome of a cyclic succession of civilisations that degenerate into barbarism and extinguish themselves is fast becoming commonplace – see, for example, Keith Roberts’s so-called ‘SF classic’, Pavane – Gray’s exploitation of the theme is not merely conventional. His intelligent, idiosyncratic and formally sophisticated analysis of the powers of language to bind and blind likens the cultivation of linguistic differences to the human habit of proliferating weapons of destruction. Semantic disarmament is the common aim of Urquhart’s universal language (elaborated in ‘Logopandocy’, an extraordinary feat of imaginative insight) and Pollard’s dictionary of definitions (in ‘Prometheus’): Gray suggests that it is impossible to deceive or suppress fellow-men with these ideal linguistic systems. The strictly hierarchical society in ‘Five Letters from an Eastern Empire’ develops the logic of mass-suppression to political perfection: whole sections of the population are declared to be ‘unnecessary people’ as the labour market that sustained them is withdrawn. A government decision to suspend the livelihood and usefulness of certain men and women resembles a sentence from the Empire’s draconian Court of Irrevocable Justice, where people have things removed that cannot be returned, like ear-drums, eyes, limbs and heads. Gray’s parable seethes with righteous indignation.

In the ‘Five Letters’, the power of artists to alter political facts comes under sceptical scrutiny. The two main characters, Bohu and Tohu, are respectively the tragic and comic poets of the Empire, the first supposed to manufacture High Seriousness upon demand, the second to produce demotic satire. In spite of the special status afforded these poets by the government, they are, no less than the common people, clay in the hands of the potter, as their names indicate: ‘tohu va [= and] vohu’ is the opaque Biblical phrase generally translated as ‘formless void’ (Genesis 1.2). Bohu’s poem of protest at the Emperor’s injustice is deftly assimilated by the system that it attacks: in fact, it is more serviceable than Tohu’s sycophantic ‘official’ literature. Similarly, in ‘Prometheus’, the dissenting individualism of Pollard, the token radical intellectual, has turned him into a national institution. Doubtless Gray will see his own challenging work suffer the same process of appropriation and domestication: but he will not be ignored.

1982, Janine is as tricksy, eclectic and scintillating as its two distinguished predecessors, Lanark and Unlikely Stories, Mostly. Like Gray’s other books, this novel politely says goodbye at the end; like them, too, it tries to pre-empt ingenious critical comparisons to Dostoevsky, Kafka, Nabokov, Flann O’Brien, Joyce, Cummings and others by supplying a systematic schedule of allusions and literary credentials (in Lanark this took the form of an Index of Plagiarisms). This novel also experiments with alternatives to the serial ordering of prose on the page, most dramatically in a traumatic central chapter where Shandean print patterns explode and converge. Less spectacular but highly effective is his use of a synoptic ‘Table of Contents’ and marginal half-titles for time-keeping and ironic commentary. The book – a type-setter’s nightmare – is superbly printed.

The novel is set, on a dark insomniac night, inside the head of a divorced, alcoholic supervisor of security installations, who is quietly pickling his conscience in malt in a small hotel somewhere in Scotland. For some years now his nocturnal life has been of a solitary nature, so he passes the hours by creating fetishistic stories of bondage, rape and prostitution. Being a stolid corporate man, his onanistic fantasies have a sound business footing: he is the managing director of the largest international white-slavery syndicate ever imagined. One or two other unusual features punctuate his otherwise bland and mild-mannered conventionalism: he has never cried since he was 12, never slept since his wife left him, he carries an emergency bottle of Scotch in case his memories get out of control, and a bottle of barbiturates in case the bomb goes off before he reaches a shelter.

Jock McLeish is a failed cynic. For obscure reasons (which are buried in sub-plot, but gradually emerge) he has plunged himself into selfishness and mediocrity (‘not a bad marriage’, ‘quite a good job’) consciously and with a vengeance, as if miserable alienation supplied him with some kind of desperate integrity. He finds ironic detachment from his own degradation marginally preferable to self-pity: ‘I hate pity. It does not work, it does no good, it is a device vicious people use to persuade themselves that underneath it all they are decent human beings.’ Clearly, his emotional economy is such that he cannot afford to ignore the small profit margins that contempt offers, and equally clearly, he has long since given up trying to persuade himself that he isn’t a shit. He is a Tory, not because he is deceived by ‘naive idiots like Home and Thatcher’ but because he prefers ‘hobnobbing with bastards under bright lights to skulking in the shadow with beaten dogs’. In a Falstaffian Britain where the ancient pageant of feudalism has been revived (its colour and brio produced by the lively contrast of winners and losers), McLeish sniggers meanly at corruption and cowardice. He has attempted to destroy those faculties that refuse to be anaesthetised, to sublimate suffering into rage, but in the process has lost all self-respect. In fact, his failure to simulate carelessness seems like a tribute to his moral resilience.

McLeish’s jaundiced vision is hardly flattering to Scotland. In the course of his professional life he has observed the country’s capitulation, and has himself contributed to its militarisation (the sinister blank spaces on Ordnance Survey maps are occupied by nuclear bases for which he has provided protective alarm systems). From the depths of her slough of despond, Scotland’s voice has been inarticulate, cautious and fundamentally sycophantic. ‘The truth is that we are a nation of arse-lickers, though we disguise it with surfaces: a surface of generous, openhanded manliness, a surface of dour practical integrity, a surface of futile maudlin defiance like when we break goalposts and windows after football matches on foreign soil.’ Scotland’s illusion of independence is protected by rank complacency (‘Here’s tae us, wha’s like us? Damn few, and they’re a’ deid’), and her willing conformity to popular stereotypes – the humourless pedantry, the ‘wee hard men’, and ‘that horridest of commonplaces, a Scotsman pretending to be God’. In so far as Scotland’s predicament is a product of her own attitudes and responses, Gray’s work may achieve great things: it has all the requisite sympathetic humour, critical bite and moral authority to hector, cajole and enlighten. As for the imperial forces that have robbed Scotland of a market and slighted her human resources, Gray’s protest is cogent.

Gray’s thoroughly democratic sensibility recounts the ‘very ordinary and very terrible’ private tragedy of McLeish’s emotional history. The novel’s disruption of temporal ordering is partly a realistic device, imitating the non-serial structure of recollected experience. But in McLeish’s case, the pathological reticulation of narrative is symptomatic of a dangerously fissile involuntary memory. His reflexes are in a state of trauma, bringing to mind Beckett’s wildly gesticulating character Lemuel in Malone dies: ‘Flayed alive by memory, his mind crawling with cobras, not daring to dream or think and powerless not to, his cries were of two kinds, those having no other cause than moral anguish and those, similar in every respect, by means of which he hoped to forestall same.’ McLeish resorts to his emergency bottle, bangs his head against the wall, falsifies his own perversions, and indulges in strange moral and stylistic excesses in order to suppress his recalcitrant past. In contrast to the filmic myths of his youth and his profane nightly imaginings, his own personal narrative does not conclude with consummation. The novel’s epigraph from Valéry adroitly indicates how large a proportion of our mental compartments contain highly unstable material: ‘Never to be thought about; Useless to go into further; Contents unexamined; Pointless business; Urgent; Dangerous; Delicate; Impossible; Abandoned; Reserved for others; My business; etcetera’. McLeish’s petulant repetitions, threats, jokes and diversions, and his addiction to the ‘what I should have said’ school of retrospect, all contribute to a portrait of a mind that is not in control of its experience.

The novel does not merely display the dark creatures of McLeish’s imagination, but follows his progress in taming them. A significant stage in his self-diagnosis occurs when McLeish realises the implications of the cruel and insane ‘educative’ system of a belt-wielding teacher he had encountered at school. Mad Hislop’s attempts to make a man of Jock so far succeeded that subsequently he has been locked into a machismo notion of maleness (in fact, a worthless defiance of pain) which corrupts women who admire bullies and killers as much as it brutalises men themselves. A second anagnorisis, that finally allows McLeish to resist evasive digression and recount his story in straightforward fashion, is the realisation that all his sado-masochistic fantasies of bondage and entrapment have insisted upon the femaleness of the central victim in order to resist the truth that he has been telling the story of his own enmeshed life.

In spite of one’s first impressions (cultivated in the unregenerate early sections where McLeish’s pornographic imagination is given its head) the sexual politics of this novel are mature and progressive. Jock McLeish is a fallen man, but it is clear that his youthful idealism, suspended and betrayed in the course of twenty-five years of moral inertia, had included a proper contempt for masculine delusions of mastery. Though profoundly ignorant of women in his childhood, and for many years a mental hoarder of volumes of sexist crap (identified as such near the end of the novel), his true attitudes towards women are marked by respect, need, and a sexual honesty which stops short only of recognition of the feminine in himself. Gray’s critical conscience allows no special pleading for women’s abuses of sexuality, condemning a character called Sontag (a Cosmopolitan reader, no doubt) whose discussions of love are strong on psychological and anatomical detail but lack humour and sympathy.

A few minor shortcomings of this novel are that McLeish’s straw Conservatism is never convincing, that the bondage and prostitution metaphors, initiated in the early sections of the book, are sometimes clumsily mobilised, and that pietism and schematic simplifications (either you’re part of the problem or part of the solution) occasionally obtrude. The breadth of this work is most impressive, one indication being the sheer range of radical concerns that are raised, including the post-Holocaust conscience, exploitation of the Third World, the ill-defined goals of technology, the manifold tyrannies of capitalism, the garrotting grip of conventions (and the fear of scandal), and even the iniquity of the social security cohabitation rule (‘the assumption that a woman living with a man is a self-employed whore is good practical Conservative economics’). The existential ethic of the novel demands of sentient characters that they take responsibility for their own lives instead of allowing themselves to luxuriate in the inevitability of Nature, Politics and Economics: McLeish eventually rises to the challenge.

In a glorious vision of his youth, Gray’s hero looks towards the Great Future of Mankind with boundless hope, declaring in radiant capitals that ‘it is technically possible to CREATE A WORLD WHERE EVERYONE IS A PARTNER IN THE HUMAN ENTERPRISE AND NOBODY A MERE TOOL OF IT,’ insisting as a prerequisite that we must ‘EMPLOY EVERY LIVING SOUL TO FERTILISE OUR OWN DESERTS, RESTOCK OUR OWN SEAS, USE UP OUR OWN WASTE, IMPROVE ALL GROUND, NOURISH EDUCATE DELIGHT ALL CHILDREN ... ’ In Snoo Wilson’s parodic SF novel, Spaceache, Chrissie expresses the same blithe confidence in the future: ‘Shopping will be automatically delivered, and you’ll be able to fuck people over the phone ... The whole world will be clean, and they’ll have chucked the dirty nuclear stuff back in the sun where it belongs.’ Chrissie is a willing volunteer for Her Majesty’s Government’s Cryogenic Programme, which freezes the unemployed and unwanted, and puts them into orbit in milk bottles for a million years or so to await the New Age. The moving parts and electronic hardware of SF histories of the future are often their most entertaining resource, and Snoo Wilson lays on ‘Feely papers’ (all owned by the press baron, Mudroche), a TV judicial system with an autojury of 12 Everyman computers (‘like the average man, they were in favour of capital punishment, wanted the blacks out of the country and thought that queers should be castrated’), and ‘mouthies’ (fruit machines whose jackpots are sexual, not financial). The novel’s knowing referential ironies, its knee-jerk scorn for the bourgeoisie and the proles (sic), and even the crude comedy of dismemberment, might be more forgivable if the satire were less blunt. Structurally, the novel is transparently ad hoc: like a ‘devised’ play it is made up as it goes along, here an idea, there a gag, some dialogue tacked on, then a bit of business. Improvisation is fine as an exercise, but disastrously internal as a literary practice. Compared to Gray’s tapestry, this work is mere blanket-stitch.

Edward Fenton’s promising first novel, Scorched Earth, is light and frothy and contains no carcinogenic preservatives, emulsifiers or stabilisers. It recounts ten days in the lives of four ideologically sound kids surviving on the dole in London. Their middle-aged, middle-class neighbours look down upon their joblessness from a great moral height, until they are made redundant themselves. Everything seems designed to grind them down: the political ignorance exuding like a dark dope cloud from the radio and newspapers, the ‘recession chic’ fashions worn by trendies with jobs, the sexist ads in the tube, the high price of trash food, the insolence of office, and the spurns that not-so-patient merit of the unworthy takes. Scorning the bruised and beaten quiescence of the job-centre miseries, they perfect the folk art of spontaneous protest, using the only arms at their disposal – cunning, chutzpah, aerosol paint and a couple of eggs. The novel hasn’t much plot to speak of, but there isn’t much plot to life on the dole: ‘Do you know what day it is?’ ‘Sorry mate, no, I don’t sign on for another couple of weeks.’ Even if this novel doesn’t exactly challenge one’s preconceptions about fiction, it’s funny and young and gutsy – a small blast on behalf of the millions whose lives are being wasted.