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.

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