The OF Blog: Alasdair Gray, Lanark: A Life in 4 Books

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Alasdair Gray, Lanark: A Life in 4 Books

"Did you find it, Lanark?"

"Find what?  What do you mean?"

"Find what you were looking for on the balcony?  Or do you go there to avoid  us?  I'd like to know.  You interest me."

"How do you know my name?"

"Oh, we all know your name. One of us is usually in the queue when they shout it at the security place.  Sit down."

Sludden patted the sofa beside him.  Lanark hesitated, then put his cup on the table and sat.  Sludden said, "Tell me why you use the balcony."

"I'm looking for daylight."

Sludden pursed his mouth as if tasting sourness.  "This is hardly a season for daylight."

"You're wrong.  I saw some not long ago and it lasted while I counted  over four hundred, and it used to last longer.  Do you mind my talking about this?" (pp. 4-5)

Alasdair Gray's Lanark:  A Life in 4 Books is perhaps one of the quintessential interstitial novels.  It sits firmly aside the imaginary dividing lines between realism and surrealism, between autobiography and mythic fiction.  It is not a novel that can be summed up easily in a few short paragraphs or even a few short pages.  It is sui generis in so many aspects, but can it be judged well on its own terms?

This book is divided into four books, going from Book Three to Book One to Books Two and Four, with an Epilogue following.  As might be expected, the story is not a linear one.  Lanark, the man  who appears in the above quote, is in equal parts a person and perhaps a personification of the Scottish town of that name.  He has entered what appears to be a Hellish version of Glasgow called Unthank, but it is hard to tell at first, considering how Gray has constructed his writing.  The prose and characterizations at first read as though the reader were engaged with a Naturalist/realist novel, but then there are sudden swerves where characters, especially in Books Three and Four, are seen to be afflicted with strange, supernatural disorders that may or may not be metaphors for social and physical diseases of our time.

The first two "books," however, follow a different narrative course, appearing to be based in large part upon Gray's own life experiences as writer and illustrator growing up in Scotland during the first half of the 20th century.  Here appears Lanark's alter ego, a young artist named Duncan Thaw.  Thaw's story is outlined in a bildungsroman that at first glance contains none of the surrealist weirdness that is found in the other two books.  However, Gray manages to weave these seemingly disparate threads together to create a haunting work that will require several reads before its full contents are revealed to the reader.

In reading this work, I found myself following easily Gray's rhythmic prose.  From description-rich passages detailing both the realist and mythic views of Scotland to the mostly excellent dialogue that allows him to not just develop the Thaw/Lanark characters but also to underscore the alienation that each was feeling within their milieu, Gray's prose was outstanding.  However, despite the seeming easiness of the passages, there are so many allusions to other events to other ideals that I am certain that I overlooked much.  A re-read certainly will be in order sometime in the next couple of years. 

As stated above, the characters are fascinating.  Gray does not utilize infodumping or sudden realizations to reveal the nature of the landscapes the character(s) are in, but instead he uses their confused, questing natures to allow the reader to draw conclusions that may or may not be correct.  Thaw's upbringing is in turns frustrating and fulfilling, but Thaw does not have to state that directly; the reader discovers that for her/himself.  Lanark's experiences are all the more interesting because he does not spell out everything; the reader has to puzzle out what is occurring based on the small clues left here and there.

The end result of this is a dual story told over the course of 560 pages that brings both character and setting (realist and surrealist alike) to life.  As our own lives contain cyphers in both the people and places we encounter, Gray's narrative contains the same.  The haunting nature of several passages contrasts nicely with the very realistic problems that both protagonists face during the course of their narrative developments.  While Lanark is not a plot-centric novel, it certain contains several moving scenes that will appeal to quite a few readers.

On the whole, this novel was one of the more challenging works I have read in quite some time.  As I noted above, I am uncertain that there are several narrative layers that I either missed or shortchanged in my brief comments above.  What I do know is that instead of feeling lost, this sense of there being more to be discovered later adds more anticipation to a future re-read.  Highly recommended.

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