Two Lives in Several Genres: Alasdair Gray’s Lanark

When he wrote his first novel, Lanark: A Life in Four Books, Alasdair Gray had a great many things he wanted to accomplish. He wanted to write the great Scottish epic; he wanted to imitate Joyce’s Ulysses and Portrait of the Artist; he wanted to demonstrate his erudition, gain literary renown, and expound his view of the world. He wanted to make readers laugh, cry, and possibly put the book down in consternation. I am not sure that one of his goals was to utterly confound the reviewers assigned to explain his book, but if it was, he succeeded.

Normally I’d begin or conclude a review with my assessment of its merits, but in the case of Lanark, it seems fair to put my conclusion—that it is a great, if flawed book—in the middle of the review. Here’s why. One would assume that the subtitle, “A Life in Four Books”, advises us of a classically ordered tale. There are, indeed, four books, but the book begins with Book Three, then continues to the Prologue and Book One. Book Four follows Book Two, then there’s an Epilogue, which is followed by four additional chapters outside of the four-book structure. To make matters even more complicated, the Epilogue has been “annotated by Sidney Workman with an index of diffuse and imbedded Plagiarisms.” This aggrieved fictitious critic includes several glosses on chapters and events that don’t actually occur in the book proper. Oh, and you’ll only learn Sidney Workman’s name if you’ve paid close attention to the book’s Table of Contents.

It’s a far more complicated book than a brief blog post can explain, but I feel I obliged to give a quick summary of the plot and structure. Spoilers for a probably unspoilable book follow.

Book Three begins with Lanark, newly arrived in city of Unthank, a hellish Glasgow with only a few minutes of sunlight a day—though measuring this is difficult, as Unthank has no working clocks—and without a memory predating his awakening on a train pulling into the city. Even his name is invented, borrowed from a picture of the Scottish town of Lanark. After weeks of ennui and darkness in Unthank, Lanark develops “dragonskin” and begins turning into a monster. He escapes Unthank and is cured of the dragonskin when he is swallowed by a giant mouth, unencumbered by a surrounding face, that appears on the wall of a cemetery monument. Lanark wakes in a subterranean hospital, cured of his affliction, and, despite his ignorance and his protests, is forced to act as a doctor. He reunites with a former lover, inadvertently cures her apparently terminal dragonskin, then meets a bodiless oracle who recounts Lanark’s past life: Books One and Two.

After the phantasmagoria, surrealism, and allegory of its first hundred-odd pages, Gray turns the next two-hundred pages into a realistic autobiographical novel about Duncan Thaw, a working-class Glaswegian who dreams of becoming a great artist and may even come close to succeeding. I found myself reading these chapters slowly, not because they were boring but because they were so affecting. Thaw, selfish, neurotic, lonely, brilliant, and self-sabotaging, fails life’s tests and becomes Lanark: “He was unacceptable to the infinite bright blankness, the clarity without edge which only selfishness fears. It flung him back into a second-class railway carriage, creating you.”

I won’t describe the remainder of the book, though I will say that it is as strange and eventful as Book Three. Those readers who hate metafiction should stay away: Lanark eventually meets the book’s pompous author, criticizes his plotting, and shocks him by suggesting the book might be science fiction: “I am not writing science fiction! […] I may astound my public by a dazzling deployment of dramatic metaphors designed to compress and accelerate the action, but that is not science, it is magic! Magic!” As you can tell from his ridiculous protests, Gray doesn’t want his readers to take “him” too seriously.

(End spoilers)

As that plot summary suggests, Lanark is an unwieldy and strange book. It will frustrate you at times, and it’s hardly flawless: Thaw/Lanark is by far the most fully realized character; too many figures in the book seem made of cardboard: manufactured for plot convenience and indistinguishable from their peers. Most importantly, at this point in his career—Lanark, believe it or not, was a first novel—Gray was not a convincing writer of women, though much of his plot concerns Lanark’s relationship with a woman. Finally, the book’s structure, though clever, does rob it of momentum: it seems to go in fits and starts.

Before I conclude, I need to say a word about the book’s artwork. “Don’t judge a book by its cover” is a familiar cliché, but just like the storyteller’s advice to “begin at the beginning,” it doesn’t apply to Lanark. Though it’s had a few different covers over the thirty-five years since its publication, most editions bear a cover by Alasdair Gray himself. Gray, like his alter ego Duncan Thaw, is an admirer of William Blake, and Blake’s influence is very much apparent, with a clean firm line and a stylization that adds to, rather than detracts from, each figure’s individuality. The wraparound cover abounds with detail: God sending lightning from his eye, a naked woman holding the son aloft, the Blakean “dark satanic mills” of Glasgow, the cathedral of Unthank, a woman giving birth, a dragon, three angels, a bridge over an empty river, and several portrait heads. If the cover, with its profusion of allegorical detail and artistic flourish, comes close to being too much of a good thing, that’s in keeping with the whole of this long strange book. It’s beautiful but overwhelming.

You may wonder why am I talking about this book on a website devoted to science fiction and fantasy. For all its magic and perverse technology, I wouldn’t call it science fiction or fantasy; Gray’s name is not familiar to most science fiction readers, and you won’t find Lanark on the library’s science fiction shelf. But that doesn’t mean it’s had no impact on the genre: Lanark was one of the first big “literary” novels to use genre tools, and its success may be one reason that today’s major “mainstream” writers like David Mitchell and Michael Chabon feel comfortable departing from realism. Iain Banks, another writer who frequently crossed genre lines, called Lanark “the best in Scottish literature in the twentieth century” and wrote that it was a major inspiration for his semi-genre novel The Bridge. I suspect that the complicated structures of Banks’s Feersum Endjinn and certain of the Culture novels may owe the same debt. Small Beer Press, which is known for its genre books, published Gray’s most recent novel, Old Men in Love. In his “list of diffuse and imbedded Plagiarisms,” Gray lists dozens of works that influenced Lanark. I hope that some future science fiction books will “plagiarize” from Gray. There will never be another book quite like this one, but I want to see its influence spread. Lanark, after all, gives its reader the best of two worlds.

Matt Keeley reads too much and watches too many movies; he is helped in the former by his day job in the publishing industry. You can find him on Twitter at @mattkeeley.

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