<%-- Page Title--%> Book Review <%-- End Page Title--%>
<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 128 <%-- End Volume Number --%>
October 31, 2003
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CARRIE O'GRADY on DBC Pierre's sparkling debut, Vernon God Little
Brian Eno once remarked that although very few people got hold of the first Velvet Underground album when it came out, all those who did went on to form a band. Alasdair Gray enjoys a similar sort of status in the world of fiction. In discussing his work, much is made of the glorious literary forefathers he's regularly compared with. Yet if any contemporary author can be described as a "writer's writer" then it's the massively influential Glaswegian, his list of acolytes reads like a Who's Who of modern British fiction.
When teaching Chicago graduate and post-graduate fiction students a module in Scottish contemporary fiction earlier this year, I was gratified (though not surprised) to witness the ecstatic impact Gray's first book, the magnificent Lanark, had on the aspiring American writers.
His new collection of short stories contains almost everything we have come to associate with its author. The pages glow with keen and incisive wit, are stuffed with quirky and downright weird occurrences, while the philosophical ruminations make us pause for thought, and the sad, flawed, often cowardly, but ultimately humane and decent protagonists are back with a vengeance. Once again, the book is beautifully illustrated by the author's own hand, and in the appendix the critics are playfully baited in advance.
As the dust jacket proclaims, the stories are generally about people in "the last stages of physical, moral and social decrepitude", which explains the reflective and occasionally melancholy undercurrent in many of the tales.
What's different? Well, readers expecting to see more of the wild, experimental Gray of his earlier work, including his previous collections of short stories, the often brilliant Unlikely Stories Mostly or Ten Tales Tall and True, may be a bit disappointed. Strangely though, this collection emerges as one of his most quietly satisfying books. The approach here, while often more controlled and low pressure, in this case generally yields a beautifully realised, thematically consistent collection.
"Big Pockets With Buttoned Flaps" is a wry tale of a retired schoolmaster who, by turn, seems victim and pervert. As in many of the stories, we never really know for sure until the final sentence. The longest story, "No Bluebeard", tells of a flawed male protagonist's search for love. A tale that starts off as humorous, if slightly disturbing, evolves into something poignant and redemptive.
Gray is at his stinging best with short jabs at authority figures in the stories "Moral Philosophy Exam" and "Property", the latter being so loathsome that it has to be based on a true event as is claimed in the notes at the back of the book.
"15 February 2003", the author's account of his participation in an anti-war march in Glasgow, fits in with the overall tone of the stories and has the effect of personalising the collection. Although I largely agreed with its sentiment and politics, placed here as a work of non-fiction it jarred for me a little. I'd personally have preferred to see it surface elsewhere and suspect that it may have been included to pad out what is a relatively slim volume.
Gray and his characters emerge as disappointed idealists, saddened by setbacks both political and personal, the latter usually of a romantic nature, and their progress charts more than the customary replacement of youthful idealism with the cynicism of old age. The protagonists in The Ends of Our Tethers live through the socialist and Christian ideals of the brotherhood of man and notions of loyal, everlasting love between men and women, usurped by shallower, baser and more selfish principles.
Our heroes in this collection are coming out from those margins and staggering across the stage of our more atomised society, where love, often seeming more elusive and transient than ever, is at a premium. The Ends of Our Tethers is a far from depressing read though, as Gray and his characters are simply too cheerful, mischievous and optimistic to let the bastards grind them down. It's this un-erring sense of humanity that makes the "decrepitude" bearable and provides the moral force of the book.
Gray dedicates the collection to the superb but little known Scottish writer, Agnes Owens, also taking time to speculate as to why her work does not enjoy wider recognition. Much is made of sour and jealous literary rivalries, but it's as common for writers to be surprised as to why some of the peers they admire do not have greater renown as it is for them to be bitter about a supposed rival's success. I was certainly amazed that none of my American students had heard of Lanark before I introduced it to the class.
This (unfortunately) will probably not be the book to give Gray the mass international readership his work richly deserves, but it will serve to remind those of us who have enjoyed him over the years of just how good he is. And that, lest we forget, he is one of the most gifted writers who have put pen to paper in the English language.
Irvine Welsh is a writer. This review was first published in the Guardian.