Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Lanark by Alasdair Gray

Don't call it a comeback, and no - I didn't retire.  I'll have you know I've been doing some hard reading over the past month!  I managed to plough through this modern epic, and left another couple of books abandoned at the side of the road.

Lanark's got a bit of a reputation as a difficult read but although I started flagging a couple of times, something great always managed to pop up in time.  It's really two novels welded together into one.  It starts in a dystopian version of Glasgow called Unthank where the sun never rises and people vanish as they turn into dragons.  It feels more like a bad dream than science fiction, and it's never completely convincing.

The book takes a turn for the better as the lead character (Lanark himself) is shown his previous life from a child to a tortured young painter.  This is the most successful part of the book, and it's strongly autobiographical.  It doesn't stop Gray painting the character Thaw as a weird, selfish, socially dysfunctional little prick.  I think there's more than a touch of self-flagellation going on here from the author.

The last part of the book picks up Lanark's story again.  I liked this better than the first fantasy section, as our hero travels back to Unthank with his beloved girlfriend (who clearly hates his guts) and accidently becomes a prominent political figure.  There's a lot of really sharp satire here - stuff I haven't seen before.  How Scotland changed from a manufacturing to a public sector economy; the transformation of Glasgow's skyline over the decades (not least the M8) and the way the elites in local government and business behave.

But the biggest target of the satire is the book itself.  Alasdair Gray himself turns up towards the end, ripping right into his own masterwork.  There's even an "index of plagiarisms" which show what ideas, scenes and dialogue he's stolen from where, even down to where he's stolen the idea for a boring fake index in a novel.  What's really interesting is when you notice many of the entries are about chapters which go beyond the end of the book, and give you clues about what happens next, even while mocking the whole stupid plot.  We've seen this kind of po-mo thing before with mixed results, but I loved it here.

Not a perfect novel by any means, but really enjoyable.  I wonder though if I got more out of it from growing up in Glasgow.  The Cathedral and the Necropolis especially loom large both in Thaw's city and Unthank.  It does feel like he's writing his hometown a valentine and poison pen letter in one.  All great cities deserve such a treatment


zungg said...

"It feels more like a bad dream than science fiction" - I agree, but you imply that this is a bad thing! I don't think Gray was trying to write science fiction; I think the Unthank story is much more of a bad dream and isn't meant to be 100% "convincing". This is supported by all the postmodern jiggery-pokery in the last section of the novel. This (especially the author showing up near the end) actually mars the novel for me; I found this aspect of it gratuitous, unoriginal and apologetic - three things which the rest of the novel assuredly isn't. The index of plagiarisms is quite funny though (not to mention useful).

I do agree that the Thaw sections are better written overall, although I like the first Unthank section a lot, particularly the whole idea of dragonhide, which I read as a metaphor for (voluntary?) social exclusion, for retreating into your own world exactly as the mental Thaw eventually does with his Sistine Chapel project.

Joe said...

The bad dream feeling of the first part was the bit I liked best about it. I also liked the heavy metaphors (like dragonhide) which were just out reach (madness, the creative spark?) but I think it needed to be something else to be a bit more coherent. Not easy when you're dealing with a fevered nightmare state, but something achieved in, say, the unconsoled

Because I didn't think the first part really worked as a whole, I suppose I enjoyed the stepping outside the frame in the last part better. Do you know if any of his other stuff - poor things for example - would be worth reading?

zungg said...

Yeah, The Unconsoled is the daddy of fevered nightmare states.

I loved Poor Things but it's a different kind of thing altogether. Basically a rompy comic rewriting of Frankenstein. It actually does the multilayered unreliable pomo thing to a much greater extent than Lanark but successfully in my opinion because it's written with such a light touch.

I've had 1982, Janine sitting on my shelves for a while now, leering at me darkly. Shall crack its spine soon.

Anonymous said...

Who is that naked bitch? She looks hot. Read faster!


Joe said...

I think it's a ridiculously idealised and unattainable vision of womanhood shared by both Lanark and Unthank.

It could also be the embodiment of the Sun, which Lanark goes from world to world trying to find and which is a metaphor for love.

I really like Gray's drawings - I see there's a version of the book with tonnes more illustrations.

Joe said...

Sorry, shared by Lanark and Thaw. Lanark's a character, Unthank's a place. Thaw's a person who's also Lanark, and also Alisdair Gray, but he's also a seperate character.