book-reviews

Lanark

by Alisdair Gray

Rating: ★★★★

I don't know. It's clever, cruel, comic commentary, but it also seems somewhat aimless. Perhaps expecting a clear message from what is essentially a madman's approach to autobiography would be reductive. Perhaps some of the threads of literary references I missed would help tie it together. I should read the provided list of plagiarisms in more detail.

Lanark is structurally playful. The story begins with Book 3. An omniscient narrator provides their backstory in the Prelude that follows. In the Epilogue (part-way through Book 4), the main character enters into a conversation with the author, and fills him in on some parts of the book which he hadn't written yet. They debate the ending. There are two highly distinguished narratives (Books 3&4 and 1&2) which are drawn from entirely different genres, but nevertheless continue the thread of a single life (the author's). I thought Book 3 was the worst of the lot, coming off as empty allegory with a few interesting bits, so it's unfortunate in a way that that's where it starts, though it's absolutely necessary to make the novel work. Book 1 was gripping, Book 2 only slightly less so, Book 4 was dry getting going but ended excellently.

That sounds cute and playful, but Lanark is not just messing around. Books 3&4 are a Kafkaesque science-fiction dystopia in which a forlorn, bewildered man is batted around an increasingly incomprehensible and dire world whilst really just looking for someone who will be nice to him without then immediately hating and hurting him. Books 1&2 are a frankly horrifying autobiographic bildungsroman about a young man who wants to have sex and be an artist, but is so unreflectively selfish that he makes everyone who tries to help him grow to despise him. There is a painful intimacy of sexual and emotional detail which recalls those nightmares where you do something really embarrassing in front of a girl you like and then absolutely everyone laughs at you and she just looks really disgusted at the idea that you might like her. Sniping through all this, minor secondary characters will occasionally and incidentally snap off precise, deadly lines about exactly what is really wrong with Thaw (/Alisdair/you).

I don't know what to think of Alisdair Gray. This is meant to be his masterpiece. He laboured half his life over this staggering first novel, saving up years of literary quotations and his own diaries for plunder. It's certainly impressive, but I don't understand how he could go on to write several more novels, or what the hell they would be like.