A good way to scare readers away from a book is calling it experimental. There’s a fine line — sometimes there’s no line at all — between crossing the boundaries of traditional storytelling and writing up some unreadable, presumptuous mishmash. Even those who love a challenge may feel most of what is presented as experimental or revolutionary is just off-putting.
Which is why I was glad to see Lanark, Alasdair Gray’s first and best know novel, in an Amazon list by Jeff VanderMeer called “Entertaining but Different: Strange Fiction”. Yes, VanderMeer is saying, these books are not like the others, but they are still great reads. Experimenting doesn’t suppose boredom, and that is the biggest quality of Gray as an author: the ability of being both engaging and challenging, of making us think without ever spoiling our fun.
Lanark is a monster of a book, a 600-page novel that took Gray some 25 years to write and was instantly recognized as one of the major literary works of the 20th century. (Anthony Burgess said Gray was “the first major Scottish writer since Walter Scott” based solely on this book.) Two years later, Gray published his first collection of short stories, Unlikely Stories, Mostly. A year after that, he published 1982, Janine, which to this day he thinks of as his best book. I’m with him.
The biggest quality of Gray as an author: the ability of being both engaging and challenging, of making us think without ever spoiling our fun.
Where Lanark is overtly megalomaniac, with its dual tale of a struggling Scottish artist in Glasgow that drowns to be reborn in a world ruled by the underground people of a mysterious Institute, 1982, Janine is deceivingly modest: in a cheap hotel room somewhere in Scotland a middle-aged everyman drinks his minibar dry and tries to escape his thoughts and memories through wicked fantasies of bondage and domination. But one human mind can be more complex and fascinating than a whole world — than two worlds, even — and 1982, Janine is good evidence for it.
Gray’s second novel is, for starters, even better written than his first one. Lanark had a little too much dialogue for my taste, but in 1982, Janine Jock McLeish has no one to talk too, and the prose flows more beautifully. Unlike many “difficult” writers, Gray is not a particular friend of obscure words or complex turns of phrase: he’ll go for the easy words to convey difficult ideas, and the result is delightful. Take this, maybe my favorite excerpt of the whole book:
“If you wake too late for work one morning, spring from bed, dress quickly, then rushing to the front door find it blocked by your car standing in the middle of the living-room, the furniture moved back against the walls; if you discover this you will not feel afraid at first, you will think that you have not really wakened at all. And when a careful examination shows the car as solid as usual, and undoubtedly your own, and if you find the room solid too, with the wallpaper pattern undisturbed, making it unlikely that a jocular friend has suddenly become a millionaire and hired a team of expert workmen silently to knock a hole, insert the car, then swiftly reconstruct the wall exactly as it was – if the consistency of things shows you are in a world like the usual, apart from one inexplicable oddity – then only a pessimist will return to bed hoping to fall asleep again in the usual world he understands. I would walk round the car, open the door and adventure out, fearful, of course, like all explorers in a strange world, but hoping for something new and better. I would have to see everything as a child does, letting the things themselves teach me what they were, knowing my grasp of them was secondary and slight.”
A complex idea transmitted through a beautiful metaphor told with the simplest terms. And what follows makes it even better:
“Why am I diluting an enjoyable wicked fantasy with this sort of crap? — like a publisher attaching a brainy little essay by a French critic to The Story of O to make the porn-eaters think they are in first-class intellectual company.”
That is Jock McLeish in a nutshell, a dreamer drowning on cynicism. 1982, Janine tells of the night his cynicism goes stale, his fantasies stop working, and Jock must change or die. I won’t tell you which way it goes, but I’ll say it is really worth your while to read the book and find out.